Slinx

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Xanadu story universe
Author: Bryan

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"Fucking cosplayers!" Howard's tone held a mix of frustrated annoyance and sheer terror. He was giving the terror precedence, of course, cowering underneath one of the display tables as the bizarre chaos surged around the anime dealer's room. But it was impossible to resist placing blame and clearly it lay with the costumed maniacs.

He normally didn't mind cosplayers much, though he looked down on them and certainly would never think of joining their ranks. He had also known that they'd be especially common and obtrusive at Kubla Con this year, what with the prominent and lavishly-awarded costume contests, so he'd been prepared to ignore them. But when they started running around hollering the names of elaborate martial arts moves at the tops of their lungs while hurling chairs and pyrotechnics like this...

Okay, so this was pretty much unprecedented and not really a standard cosplay activity. He didn't have any other explanation for it though, so it seemed a safe bet to blame it on them. Even worse, a riot this big was certain to make the news. Janet had already teased him enough about going to the convention, despite having admitted 'kinda liking' anime herself once he'd shown her it wasn't all just kid's stuff. And then the guys at work, some of whom liked the kid's stuff, had teased him about his embarrassment.

Something smashed into the table above him, scattering the toys that had been displayed on it, and Howard cringed. "I just wanted DVDs," he whimpered. "There weren't even the DVDs."

A satchel landed on the floor next to him and an object about the size and shape of an egg rolled out. There was a reddish gem mounted in the side blinking at him. Howard blinked back, startled, and reached out to bat it away in case it drew attention to his hiding place. The gem flared brightly and Howard screamed, recoiling. He wasn't able to pull away from the sudden sucking sensation and he felt like he was sliding helplessly down a funnel with the egg at the bottom.

Then there was darkness and silence. Howard kept screaming and couldn't even hear himself. He was floating in a void, all of his senses gone.

He eventually quit screaming, the panic slowly fading. He still felt like he was falling but one could only sustain the fear for so long before it burned itself out. After a timeless interval he found himself strangely calm. Okay, so something weird happened just now, he thought to himself. That egg-thing, did it blow up? Am I hurt?

Howard felt like he could move his body, but couldn't tell if he was actually sensing himself or just imagining it like an all-over phantom limb. That should have sparked another bout of panic; was he comatose? Paralyzed? Dead, even? But having had the fear already leached out of him he found it impossible to work it back up again.

Limbo felt... warm. Comforting, even. Like he was supposed to be here. Howard shook his head, trying to dispell the strange feeling. He wanted out! Or at least, he should want out...

I'll be let out when I'm needed, the reassuring thought came to him. Howard blinked - or felt like he did, at any rate. Huh? He didn't understand why he'd thought that or what it actually meant. Was he going nuts?

Howard decided not to think about the bigger picture at that point, instead focusing once again on what little he could sense about his immediate situation. He didn't know how much time had passed, it could have been minutes or hours. He was having trouble controlling his phantom body, his posture inexorably curling up into a foetal position as he relaxed. It felt odd, like the proportions of his limbs themselves were changing in the process, but it was more comfortable that way so he let it go. I should rest, he thought, so I'll be fully charged when I'm called for. There was another of those weird thoughts again. What did it mean? He did feel sleepy, he admitted. Maybe all the adrenaline had worn him out. And the sound of the commotion was starting to fade so perhaps a rest was in order.

Wait a minute, sound? Howard tried to rouse himself enough to pay attention, realizing that he could still hear people moving around and talking somewhere nearby. He even felt a faint whispery touch and a sense of movement, as if he were being carried somewhere. But he was slipping well down the slope to sleep now, and couldn't even bring himself to try uncurling his imaginary body. I'll be ready to listen to instructions when I'm charged up enough to be summoned, he reassured himself. He managed only a slightly furrowed brow at the strange thought before finally nodding off.

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"So, you know how to make it work?"

Howard blinked, rapidly waking at the sound of nearby speech. He was still stuck curled up and floating in limbo but he could hear just fine now, the unfamiliar voice coming as clear as day.

"Yeah," someone else said. Also male and also sounding somewhat young. A teen-ager. "Hand it here, my brother plays this game all the time." Howard felt shifting pressure and weight like he was being moved from one giant hand to another. "You have to point this jewel where you want it to come out, and then call the name of what's inside."

"Its name?" The first voice asked, "how do you find that out?"

An electric thrill of anticipation ran through Howard's body, such as it was, though he wasn't exactly sure what it was in anticipation of. He tensed, ready to uncurl and surge out confinement though still unable to move just yet. Slinx, he thought urgently. Slinx. Slinx. Come on, I'm Slinx... no, wait. What am I thinking...?

"Not a personal name, just the name of the species of Gamimon," the second voice continued, interrupting Howard's confused train of thought. "The symbol in the jewel here shows what's in it. I think I recognize this one, let me try. Stand back." There was another sense of motion as Howard felt himself picked up and lifted through the air, then finally the words he'd been waiting for: "Slinx, activate!"

Howard lunged like a uncoiling spring, suddenly back in the light and solidity of the real world. He had only a split second to take in his surroundings; a large and messy bedroom, the walls bedecked with shelving and posters, the floor mostly covered in piles of loose papers and books. He was hurtling for a pile of laundry in the corner. He reflexively reached out to break his fall but when he caught sight of his arms he yanked them back with a startled yowl, landing in an awkward heap.

"Holy shit!" "Yow!" The two young men at the other end of the room both reacted with just as much surprise, recoiling from Howard. Howard found it impossible to pay much attention to either of them just then, though, even the one clutching a familiar-looking object in his hand. He was too busy struggling to stand. His legs didn't seem to want to work properly and he wound up propped unsteadily on all fours instead. All four paws. He looked down at himself and saw what had happened to him while he'd been floating in limbo.

He was an animal of some kind, his body covered in a thick pelt of dark gray fur. His clothing was gone. He had a tail. He felt it curl even as he saw it, and also felt the fur on it prickling out to stand straight in response to his emotions. A cat? He thought numbly, sinking back on his haunches to keep from falling over. But no, he immediately corrected himself, he was too big for that - more the size of a large bobcat, about two feet tall at the shoulder. I'm a Slinx. What the hell is a Slinx? And what do I need to do? He let out a plaintive 'mrrow,' his mouth and throat unable to react properly to his desire to form words.

"It did work! The damn thing's real after all!" The first youth was clutching the arm of the second, amazed and openly frightened. It was a little comical considering how the second was clearly the skinnier and gawkier of the two.

The second just stared at Harold for a moment longer, jaw hanging open, and then shook off both his astonishment and the other boy's grip. "Yeah, shut up Kev, what do we do with it now?"

Harold blinked and felt his ears flick reflexively. I was expecting you'd tell me what to do, he thought with a strange sense of eagerness, a sensation that was even more unsettling than the ear-flick from a moment earlier. Er, and tell me what's happened to me, damnit, he silently added with a low growl. His thoughts were all mixed up, even more than the simple shock of discovering the changes to his body. But now that for some reason he was hanging on every word the boy who'd called him out was saying it would be nice if he'd at least explain what was happening. He gingerly probed the large pointed teeth with his tongue, trying to figure out some way to speak intelligibly through them.

"Oh man, oh man, oh man, what's it doing? Is it going to attack?" The boy called Kev seemed on the edge of panic.

The other boy sighed. "Shut up, Kev. Geeze. If it's really a Gamimon it's not going to attack anyone unless we tell it to, right? Hell, look at it, it looks scared too. Get a grip."

Harold flicked his ears down again, this time in embarrassment. He's right. Geeze, get a grip. My master knows what's going on, I just need to wait and... he'll... Howard's thought trailed off, his eyes wide and a sinking sensation in his gut as enough pieces finally clicked for him to recognize what was going on here. That thing in his master's hand was a Gamiegg, the same one that had rolled under the table back at the convention center when everything had gone nuts. And he, himself, was now a Gamimon somehow - the fact that he was thinking of the youth holding the Gamiegg as his "master" cinched it.

It was a stupid rip-off of the Pokemon franchise, he remembered, just different enough to avoid lawsuits. He had no idea how it had managed to gain any popularity at all, it didn't even have a TV series. But more importantly, how had he become one? Something to do with all that cosplay suddenly gone wild? And why? He hated Pokemon and he barely knew anything at all about that copycat version! Apparently that hadn't mattered to the Gamiegg that had "captured" him, though. Oh God. Okay. So setting aside for the moment that this is all completely insane, let's say that I got sucked into a Gamiegg. I'm not a Gamimon, so how could that have even worked? He closed his mouth again and shook his head, thinking quickly. Gamieggs were used in the game to capture wild Gamimon and store them for later use in battle, he recalled. If they only worked on Gamimon... It made me into one, then. A Slinx. Damned if I know what a Slinx is.

"You're right," Kev seemed to be shaking off some of his own surprise now, taking the time to examine Howard more closely. "Wow. I don't think I really believed that thing came out of Xanadu. This shit's magic, just like all the other stuff in the news." He glanced down at the Gamiegg again. "So what's a Slinx? What can it do?"

Howard let out an impatient sigh and awaited his master's explanation.

His master actually let out a little chuckle. "Look, I think he understands us. He looks confused too, I wonder if he knows what's going on."

"Michael! I don't know! Get on with it!" Howard added a feline "myeah!" of his own, and was relieved that he finally had a name he could associated with his master - it was getting kind of unsettling just thinking of him as just plain "master" all the time.

"Okay, okay. This is just what I remember, mind you. Slinx is a shadow Gamimon, specializing in stealth. Slinx is a good fighter too. I think the name is a pun on 'slinking' and 'lynx' - see the long tufts of black hair on its ears?" Howard immediately looked upward in a futile attempt to see what Michael was talking about, evoking another laugh from his master in the process. "You know, I think this Slinx is brand new, like a blank slate. He doesn't even know what he is either."

"Yeah, yeah. So it's sneaky. But what can we make it do?"

Wait, no, go back to what Michael was just saying, Howard mrowled urgently, rising unsteadily to his feet and trying to think of some way to communicate the concept. I'm new, alright, I'm-

"Slinx, sit!" Michael snapped. Howard immediately plopped back down onto his haunches, pleased that his master had finally given him some direction. Wait a minute... the pleased feeling faded quickly as it dawned on him how reflexively he'd obeyed the command. It was replaced with increasing worry as he discovered that even now he couldn't quite convince himself that he should stand back up. I don't want to sit. But master Michael wants me to sit. I should si... sit... I mean, sit... damnit! His train of thought kept getting diverted down the wrong track even though he knew full well it shouldn't be going there.

Michael breathed a sigh of relief at Howard's reaction, apparently not sure until that moment what effect his command would really have. "Anything we tell him to, I think. I'll have to look up what his special powers are."

Kev grinned widely. "Cool. Slinx, roll over!" Howard glared at him and bared his teeth, pleased again both at his lack of a reflexive urge to obey and at Kev's startled reaction to his disobedience.

"No, only if you're holding his Gamiegg. I remember." Michael handed the Gamiegg over to Kev and once again Howard's volatile mood swung back to dismay. Aw, no. Please don't tell me it's that easy.

"Slinx, roll over!" Howard glared at Kev, ears flat, but despite his deep reluctance he grudgingly lay down and rolled over. He got tangled in one of the dirty shirts he'd been sitting on in the process and was partly mollified by tearing it with his claws while trying to get it off, but that small victory didn't last long as Kev got the hang of playing with him. He ordered Howard around the room a few times and Howard complied, hopelessly clumsy at moving on all fours but compelled to at least make the attempt. He wasn't compelled to like it, though, and he made quite a vocal fuss about it as he went.

"Hang on, hang on, there's something wrong," Michael finally stopped Kev. "He's not happy about something."

Howard gave a sharp snort; you noticed? Stop making me prance about like a pet dog! This is demeaning!

"Yeah, I think we'd better read up on this or something," Kev agreed. Howard sighed in relief, trying to get his ruffled fur to stop standing up along his neck. "How do I turn it off?"

No, no, no. Wait a minute- Michael took Howard's Gamiegg and held it up. "Slinx, return!" Howard was falling again, sucked into the red glow of the Gamiegg's jewel and the limbo within. Damn, damn, damn! Howard tried to squirm but this time there was no long acclimatization process, the Gamiegg immediately resisted his struggles and sapped his will to move until he was curled back up in the comfortable warm nothingness again.

He could still hear, however, and distantly felt his prison shift as it was put down on a hard surface. "There," Michael said, "he should keep in there until we let him out again. I think."

Damn, Howard repeated silently to himself, wondering just how much trouble he'd wound up in. How was he going to get out of here when he couldn't even tell these yo-yos he wanted to? When he didn't even have a clue how it'd happened in the first place?

"Yeah, I'll have to be more prepared next time. Leave it here where it's safe, let's go get online and look this thing up." There was the sound of a small metal box closing - Howard got the unsettling impression that he was inside it - and he heard the muffled sounds of the two leaving the room.

Sensory deprivation again. Okay. Think, Slinx, think. They were talking about eventually calling me out again, so that's good... uh. I mean, think, Howard, think. Howard curled a little more tightly inside the Gamiegg. I'm not a Slinx. How am I supposed to fight this? This place... it's doing things to me. I'm not supposed to be here. Howard took a deep imaginary breath and started thinking of all the things he could remember about his life before then.

It actually wasn't at all difficult; he rattled off friends and family and work and hobbies, even the pointless plot details of the anime series whose box set he'd been looking for when he'd got into this mess. Just remembering things wasn't the problem, it was deeper than that. He knew he shouldn't have wanted to do what they told him to, but whenever his master had given him an order he'd just gone ahead and done it - the idea of not doing it had seemed somehow hopelessly abstract. Even now, he knew he should be frantically screaming and fighting to get out of here but somehow he just couldn't seem to muster the will to try. He was already thinking like a captive Gamimon, even thinking of himself as a Slinx when he didn't remind himself otherwise. He hadn't even known what a Slinx was an hour ago.

Was it an hour? With the Gamiegg stored away like this there was no way to really know. How long had it been since the convention, for that matter? Howard shook his head. He felt fully charged so he must have slept in the Gamiegg for quite a while, assuming he'd started out empty when first captured... Oh, hell. That's another Slinx thought, isn't it? I guess I need to learn more about this stupid 'Gamimon' game, if only so I can tell what's going on in my own head.

Perhaps next time he was called out whoever his master was would know more and be able to train him. Then maybe he could do something a little more productive than stupid pet tricks. Kev said something about special powers, didn't he? Yeah... Howard slowly dozed off despite being full of energy and full of questions, the soothing blackness overcoming him.

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Howard woke to a vague rocking sensation and the muffled sound of nearby conversation. It took him only a moment to regain his bearings, still curled up in the dark space inside the Gamiegg. And still a Slinx, he noted as he tried stretching a few muscles without actually straightening his posture. His body image seemed to have solidified during his brief excursion and he could feel every detail. As much as it disturbed him, he found himself looking forward to being called back out again so he could get a better look. He hadn't had much opportunity or presence of mind for it last time, he'd been recalled back into the egg before he'd had the chance to get his bearings. What's going on out there? He focused on the sounds filtering through from outside the Gamiegg.

"We can always drive closer later if we need to," Michael was saying. "It doesn't look like there's anyone here now, but closer in I bet the place is still swarming with cops and stuff."

"Yeah, it's good enough." Kev's response was accompanied by the sound of brakes squeaking, tires crunching over gravel, and then a gentle bump as the vehicle they were riding in came to a halt. There was a moment of shuffling and then a more pronounced movement that felt like he was being picked up. Howard's sense of eager anticipation grew, but he forced himself to stay calm. I have to keep my priorities straight, he reminded himself. No tricks, no diversions. I need to find out how to get out of this Gamiegg for good and get back to normal.

Where were they taking him? They'd been walking for a few minutes now... "Here looks good," Kev said. Howard felt himself being lifted upward and he tensed; okay, Slinx, it's showtime. "Slinx, activate!"

Howard managed to come down somewhat gracefully on his paws, prepared for a quadrupedal landing this time. He was startled by the ragged grassy turf he landed on, though, and saw that he was in a small city park of some sort. The Sun was somewhat low in the sky - either late afternoon or morning - and he found himself squinting from the brightness.

I should run. Howard looked back at the two boys, Michael holding the Gamiegg out in his direction. Maybe if I can get far enough away, he won't be able to command or recall me...

Michael seemed to pick up on Howard's nervous indecision. "Stay here, Slinx. There's nobody around, we're fine."

Howard's ears drooped. Damn. Why can't I run? Part of him still wanted to, in a hypothetical sort of way, but he didn't think he could muster the will to actually do it now that his master had ordered otherwise. So while Michael unfolded some sheets of paper from his pocket Howard instead moved on to his next priority and examined himself. He gingerly stood up and paced a few feet, flexing his stubby fingers and stretching his legs.

I should be more freaked out by this, he mused. He felt very strange but the sense of panic was almost gone now, perhaps softened during his long sleep inside that blasted Gamiegg. Now he was able to pay more attention to some of the details he'd overlooked before; the dark-dappled pattern on his gray flanks, the long whiskers, and the black tufts of fur on his wrists and ankles. For a moment he considered the fact that he was completely naked, his ears flattening in embarrassment, but he quickly overcame that particular concern. Like I don't have more important things to be worried about.

"Okay. Um, Slinx?" Michael's call drew Howard's attention back to one of those other considerations. I've got to figure out how to tell these guys my name, somehow. Hrm, maybe I can scratch it out in the dirt... "Slinx, it says here you can do something called a shadowdash. Show me your shadowdash."

Yes! The eagerness of his own reaction caught Howard off guard, especially considering he didn't have a clue how to do that. But no, he realized with even greater surprise, he did know how to do that. He padded over toward the two, the unexpected sense of confidence helping him walk steadier than before. The two shied back as he approached but he stopped short of them; what he was aiming for was just in front of them.

Howard crouched down, tail flicking involuntarily as he tensed, and then lunged forward into the shadow the two were casting in the low sunlight. He shot out the other side, his body now an intangible dark blur that streaked straight across the grass, and rematerialized again when he reached a shadow being cast by a tree fifty feet away. He stumbled slightly as he came to a halt, eyes wide. Woah!

"Woo! Lookit that!" Kev and Michael had both momentarily lost track of him when he'd moved, but had quickly caught sight of him again and were running to catch up. Howard shook his head in amazement and examined a forepaw as if it would somehow tell him how he'd been able to do that. So I can do more than just stupid pet tricks. That felt incredible...

"Ha! Good Slinx, you did it!" Michael enthused, interrupting Howard's introspection. Howard looked up and grinned uneasily. Yeah, but it doesn't really help me much here. How can I get the message across that I'm not really a Gamimon? That I've got to get back to normal somehow?

"And that's, like, just one of his basic moves," Kev added as he scanned the printout Michael had brought. Howard couldn't help it, his ears perked up; Ooh! Train me to do more!

Michael had done his research and had a very comprehensive list, but as they started working through them Howard was disappointed to find that the basic moves were all that he could do. It turned out that technically speaking he was only a first-level Slinx with no experience points and the more advanced moves were therefore beyond his ability. It would take a lot of training to level him up, assuming Howard's condition remained true to the game, and the two didn't seem the type to have patience for that. "Okay, let's put him away for now," Kev suggested once they'd finished running through the list. Howard sat quietly while Michael held up the Gamiegg and summoned him back into it, too busy wrestling with conflicting emotions to object.

It shouldn't be surprising under the circumstances, he told himself after he'd curled back up in the dark. I'm a brand new Slinx. I have no experience. So I shouldn't feel bad... he curled more tightly and gritted imaginary teeth. I shouldn't feel bad! I shouldn't want this! But he couldn't help also wanting to improve as a Slinx, to gain experience and become higher level, maybe even evolve someday into a Slyon-

Howard shuddered, trying to squelch the thought. Some Gamimon, like some Pokemon, could graduate into more advanced forms with enough experience and the right triggering conditions. Michael had mentioned it and now that Howard knew about it he couldn't help but feel somewhere deep in his gut the need to achieve it someday. A purely Gamimon desire, but one he couldn't seem to shake. It was almost as strong as his desire to go back to being human again.

He decided to try not thinking about either of those things and focus on more immediate concerns instead. The two boys were talking outside the egg and Howard had barely been listening. It felt like they were in the car again and the two were discussing how close they could get to Xanadu. We're going back to Xanadu? Maybe I can find out how this happened to me there. That was a good question that didn't bring up any confusing foreign urges so he hung on to it.

"They've blocked the road," Kev was saying. "I don't think we'll be able to talk our way past the cops. Got any ideas?"

"We could send Slinx in on his own," Michael mused. Howard perked up even more. He hadn't rested enough to fully recharge after the moves he'd performed in the park but they hadn't taken much energy in the first place; he was feeling quite ready and eager to be called back out again. The question of what they wanted to send him in for didn't immediately occur to him.

"What if they catch him?"

Michael chuckled. "Gamimon can't be stolen. We can always get him back with this, remember." Howard felt his egg being picked up and he braced himself for activation, no time to ponder anything further.

He landed in the back seat of an old car, Kev and Michael peering back over their seats at him from the front. For only his third time being summoned out of the Gamiegg he kept his footing remarkably well under the tight circumstances, only poking a few holes in the seat covers with his claws while steadying himself. A glance out the car window confirmed that they were indeed near the Orlando convention center, pulled over by the side of the road a couple of blocks away. The Sun had just started setting near the horizon so not much time must have passed. Michael was in the passenger seat and was holding his Gamiegg so Howard looked to him expectantly for instructions. Okay, so what's going on now?

"Maybe you shouldn't have zapped him out inside the car," Kev grumbled.

Michael shushed him. "Slinx, do you remember where you came from originally?" Howard nodded, a little hesitant since he wasn't entirely sure what Michael meant but finding the direction of questioning promising. "Good. And I assume you know what a Gamiegg is?" Howard cocked his head and looked at Michael like he was crazy. What in the hell do you think, master?

Michael laughed nervously, clearly understanding the expression. "Okay. Slinx, I want you to go there and bring us back any other Gamieggs you can find."

Howard's expression turned to one of dismay. What? Aren't we here to train me up more? I mean, to find out more about me? He looked out the car window in the direction of Xanadu again, giving his head a little shake to keep his priorities clear.

Kev laughed now too, misinterpreting the cause Howard's distress. "He doesn't have hands, Mike, you'd better open the door."

"Oh, of course. Sorry, Slinx." Michael hurriedly got out of the car and opened the back door, looking around to see if anyone was watching them. Howard jumped out and Michael immediately closed it again before there was any opportunity for second thoughts. "We'll be parked, uh, just down the road there," Michael pointed in the direction of the adjacent neighborhood. "Try not to be too long." Then he got back inside and Kev pulled away, leaving Howard to scramble for concealment in the shadow of a bush by the side of the road.

He crouched there for a moment, panting and confused. Oh, great. These two idiots want to be Gamimon players for real now, do they? As if I don't have enough problems. If they their hands on more Gamimon, then- For just a moment Howard imagined it; combat with all the diverse multitudes of his kind, victories and training for new abilities, claiming championships in his master's name. He shook his head again, hard. Gah! No, no, no. I don't want to play! Now his heart was pounding audibly in addition to the panting, so he took a moment to compose himself.

Deep breaths, Slinx, deep breaths. Okay. What next? He peered out from the shadow in the direction of Xanadu. I need to go that way anyway. Let's find out what's going on here once and for all. Mustering up all his basic-level stealth powers, Howard slunk back toward Xanadu.

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It was immediately apparent that at least a few days had passed since Howard had been trapped in the Gamiegg. The convention center grounds had the air of a mostly-vacated refugee camp and some of the vehicles from various official agencies had apparently been parked in a huddle around the building's entrances for a while now. He was able to sneak in pretty close, his magical camouflage working at its best in the deepening dusk, and sat in the shadow of a wrecked car by the west entrance to ponder how best to explore.

Maybe just forget the whole stealth thing, walk right up, and try to introduce myself to someone in charge? Howard was under no illusions that he could get a handle on the situation on his own. But that idea just didn't sit right with him; he could hear a couple of them talking to each other from where he was hiding and the term 'mop-up' was occurring too frequently for his tastes. Okay, so there's no guarantee that they'll help me figure out what happened. And they certainly won't just let me leave again with more Gamieggs for master Michael. So, I sneak.

The convention center was oriented roughly east-west, with a large attached hotel at the west end. Most of the activity seemed concentrated around the hotel now so Howard circled around toward the east end instead. He stepped gingerly over some broken glass by one of the doors there, propped himself up on his hind legs to reach the handle, and after a bit of fumbling managed to hook a forepaw through it to pull it open. Slipping into the empty lobby, he dropped back down to all fours and sighed in annoyance at how difficult simply opening a door was in his current state.

The place was a mess inside, too. Howard padded along the hall and peered around through smashed doorways as he went, noting all kinds of oddities still scattered about or shoved to the sides of the rooms in great heaps. Charred marks that looked like they could be from laser blasts, fantastical swords and other weapons, claw scratches all over the carpet, stains of every scent. More than just an ordinary cosplay riot happened here, he mused, then bared his fangs in a rueful grin. No shit, Slinx. But really... he paused at one particularly dark doorway, the room beyond shadowed even to his enhanced low-light vision; it was the "over-18" hall. More than just cosplayers were involved in this. The anime rooms are nowhere near here.

Speaking of which. Reluctantly reminded again of the goal set by his master he broke off his investigation and loped off down the hall toward the anime area. Maybe there was something there that could reverse what had happened to him while he was at it, he tried justifying his compliance to himself. At the very least perhaps there were other Gamimon there that he could talk to somehow. Howard picked up the pace a bit at that thought. No, I don't want to challenge them to combat, he affirmed to himself. This isn't a match. Just- woah! He skidded to a stop, his own claws adding a few new scratches to the carpet, and jumped back a few feet to stare into the door he'd just passed with the fur puffing up along his spine. Another Slinx! Yes! I'm gonna...

Howard blinked, the thought trailing off and fur slowly lying flat again as he realized he'd just caught sight of himself in a cracked mirror standing just inside the room. Okay, I can take a moment for this, he told himself numbly as he stepped over to fully look himself over for the first time. He was lean and long-legged, more like a leopard than a lynx, but with big tufts of black fur on the tips of his ears and the sides of his jaw that made his namesake obvious. God, that's eerie, Howard blinked and shook his head. I recognize myself like this already and I've never even seen myself before. I need to get back to normal before I go completely nuts.

He tore himself away from the mirror and resumed his trek to the anime dealer's room, taking it a bit slower so he could visualize what the place had looked like last time he was here. He remembered quite clearly but things looked different from his lowered vantage point. There were also more sounds filtering through the walls from elsewhere in the building here, nearer to the hotel end of the convention center where there still seemed to be a fair bit of activity. Maybe there's more than just Gamimon in here. The thought made him extra cautious as he finally reached a door with clear signs of habitation in the room beyond.

It was open a crack and Howard peered cautiously around the corner, squinting as his large feline eyes reacted to the brightness within. He stifled a gasp. There was a dragon in there! Not a huge one, granted, and it was sleeping in the corner with sheets draped over it, but still impressive. Then he stifled a snicker; nestled in the dragon's curled tail was what appeared to be a giant white rabbit. There were other oddities resting in the room too; a minotaur with his arm in a sling, a naked green-skinned woman with petals around her face and huge leaves for arms standing in a big clay pot, a miserable-looking giant chicken roosting in a nest of blankets on the floor beside her, a man in a superhero costume with bandaged ribs and a splint on his leg. Some sort of field hospital for freaks? There were cots set up, though not many of the patients were the right shape to be using them.

Most significantly, though, Howard recognized that these were clearly not Gamimon. It wasn't just the toys that had become real, or the anime cosplayers, but everything in costume. That explains a lot. I guess. But not really about my problem in particular... Howard continued on past the room, not wanting to get side-tracked more. He was almost to his goal.

The anime dealers' room was a colossal mess, tables scattered even more than most of the other rooms he'd passed. But thankfully the place seemed deserted now and Howard slunk silently in to begin searching through the wreckage. He found it hard to place his paws without stepping on anything in here, the overturned tables had been completely packed with DVDs and manga and toys. It made for a confusing profusion of junk to sort through, but after a few minutes Howard's ears perked as he spotted some familiar-looking packages scattered on the ground; boxes of collectable Gamimon cards he remembered noticing only moments before the riot had started. He moved over to examine one.

It seemed pretty mundane and inert. So, not just any old thing was affected. Hm... Howard thought back to the moment he'd been sucked into the Gamiegg, scanning the nearby tables. There! Still lying right where it had fallen beside the table he'd been hiding under was the satchel the Gamiegg had rolled out of. Howard approached it warily. It was small and brown, made of some sort of soft leather, with a large flap over the top and a smaller pouch on the front. A Gamimon logo was stitched prominently on its side and it had a bulge in the front pouch about the size of a single Gamiegg.

Wish I had workable fingers, Howard grumbled to himself as he gingerly pulled the pouch open with his teeth and nudged the Gamiegg out. It looked just like his except that the jewel on the side was blank and lifeless. An empty? A chill shot down Howard's spine for a moment before he remembered Michael's confident assertion that a Gamimon couldn't be captured twice. Assuming that was correct the egg was harmless to him now even if it were triggered. It still wasn't quite what he was looking for, though, he'd been hoping to find another actual Gamimon. He prodded the pouch with paw and to his surprise he found that there was a second Gamiegg still inside. Pulling that one out revealed that it was an empty too, however. And then Howard's disappointment was replaced with puzzlement when he noticed that the pouch now seemed to bulge with another egg inside.

There couldn't possibly have been three in there originally. Howard stepped back from the pouch and cocked his head, pondering the situation. Magic Gamimon pouch, just like magic Gamieggs? Makes as much sense as anything else... Then he grinned as he realized that he'd already passed by the source of all answers. He turned back to the packages of ordinary Gamimon cards and carefully slit open the biggest he could find, dumping the contents out and pawing through them. There were hundreds of cards (none of them a Slinx or a Slyon, he quickly checked), little plastic counters he had no idea the significance of, and yes, an instruction booklet. All right! Let's see how I get out of this stupid game.

The booklet was small and even harder to manipulate with his paws than the satchel, so Howard had to page through carefully to make sure he didn't miss anything. The writing was also a little hard to follow - not Engrish, fortunately, but clearly translated from another language. Ah, here we are. "A Gamimon Master always has a Gamimon Gamiegg ready for if he sees a wild one to capture." I guess some cosplayer came dressed as a Gamimon Master, then. Wonder what happened to him... Howard shook his head. It probably didn't matter much considering possession of his Gamiegg was all that it took to determine his master; Michael had it now so who cared where this other guy had gone?

Right. So, how to get out of this. He continued on, skimming through a section on what cards were allowed in various decks. "...If the deck is full of Gamimon there are three ways to make room for capturing another," Howard read, excitement rising as he reached the part he'd been looking for. "A Gamiegg can be traded on the start of your turn. A Gamiegg can also be sold on the start of your turn. And at any time in your turn-" Howard fumbled to flip the page, muttering cattily at the typesetter for placing the break in the middle of that particular sentence.

"-a Gamiegg can be discarded. A Gamimon can never be placed back in the 'wild' stack again by any move."

Howard stopped reading and just stared at the page for a moment, trying to come to grips with the implications of the rule in real terms and not wanting to reach the conclusion that kept coming out. Stupid game... I don't believe it. Stupid game! Howard's claws dug into the booklet and he put a satisfying set of tears through its pages. This doesn't make sense. I wasn't even in the wild stack to begin with! I'm a human! Why did this happen? He took a shuddering breath and held it for a moment, trying to calm himself back down and keep thinking.

Okay. So maybe it just doesn't make sense. The rules don't say anything about what happens when a Gamiegg is used to capture a human, so who knows what would happen? Howard gave a little snort. There aren't any wild Gamimon for real anyway, so there's no way these eggs would be able to work right. Hell, I don't know. I'm back to square one on figuring this out. What do I do now? Think, Slinx, think...

What would master Michael want me to do? The question popped up and Howard immediately mashed it down again, in no mood to be dealing with Gamimon thoughts right then. But a moment later he sighed wearily, ears drooping in defeat. I guess I am still on a mission here, he relented. So if I can't come up with any ideas of my own, why not? He's still got my Gamiegg, after all. While there apparently weren't any Gamieggs around here that had Gamimon in them, the magic satchel had an endless supply of empties and that probably fitted Michael's order well enough. Howard pushed the two empty eggs back inside, along with one of the packages of Gamimon cards for good measure, and then picked the satchel up in his teeth. It was a little awkward at first but he managed to toss the shoulder strap back over his neck to keep it from dragging under his forepaws. After taking one last look around the devastated room he headed back the way he came. Fucking cosplayers...

The Sun was fully set when he got back out of the building, making him practically invisible and so giving him plenty of attention to spare on thinking while he made his way back to the car. A few lapses to the contrary, he grudgingly admitted that he hadn't been as strongly gripped by Slinxy urges in recent hours; he guessed that he was either getting used to them or had spent enough time out of his Gamiegg to partially clear his head. When I get back I'm going to have a talk with my master somehow, he decided. Enough of him thinking I'm just a game piece. Maybe I can make a deal. Howard snorted, almost amused by the thought. Yeah, this satchel for my Gamiegg. Except I can't call myself out of it... hm. Maybe he can give it to Janet for safekeeping until I find some other way to get free of this. Howard's ears flattened, his mood turning to embarrassment. Janet was a good friend but that idea just felt weird. Maybe a stranger would actually be preferable.

There'd be time to figure something out once they got talking, at any rate. He reached the spot he'd been dropped off at, used a shadowdash to cross the street between traffic - despite all the conflicted emotions he was getting from being a Slinx it still felt good to use one of his special powers like that - and after a few minutes managed to locate the car. Thank God. He plodded over and reared up to peer through the window, smirking a little around the satchel in his mouth at the startled reaction Kev and Michael gave inside.

"Shit, damnit, Slinx! You scared me!" Michael reached back to open the rear door and Howard hopped in, dropping the satchel on the seat. Bleah. You have no idea what it's like carrying something in your mouth like that.

"Looks like it got something, at least," Kev grumbled. "Took long enough. What's in the bag?"

Michael leaned over to retrieve it and Howard twitched, planning to put a paw down on it to make it clear he wanted to bargain. But he hesitated; Michael was Howard's master, and his master wanted the satchel. The internal conflict distracted him long enough for Michael to take the satchel without difficulty.

Howard growled disgustedly at himself while Michael started rummaging through the bag's contents. Come on, Slinx! Stop giving in so easily! Howard leaned forward to put his paw on the satchel again. "Mrrowl," he said, as close as he could manage to any sort of intelligible speech, and shook his head. "Rrowr."

Michael flinched, startled by Howard's spontaneous action. "Uh, what is it, Slinx?"

"Hh... Howwrr-"

Howard's attempt to give his name was cut off by Kev, who reached over and took his egg from Michael while shoving him back with his shoulder. "Hold your horses, cat, we're checking out your haul. We waited long enough for it already." Howard glared, claws unsheathing impotently into the back seat's upholstery. Damnit master, listen to me! "Howrr-" "Quiet!" The command was quite emphatic this time and Howard complied, ears flattened.

"What've we got?" Kev turned to check on what Michael had pulled out of the satchel so far.

Michael held up the booty. "A copy of the deluxe starter edition, and three... four, five... uh, it looks like a whole bunch of blank Gamieggs. They're all empty."

Kev frowned, picking one up. "What do you mean, empty?"

"The jewel's blank, see? There isn't a Gamimon inside."

"Aww, man! Having just one Gamimon's no fun, that was the whole point of sending Slinx for these. Where're we going to find more?" Kev tossed the empty egg onto the floor in frustration.

A familiar blinking reddish light shone up from where it had landed. Howard's eyes widened in alarm and he tried to let out a yowl of warning, but Kev's instruction to be silent choked it off in his throat. A moment later the two boys screamed loudly enough to make it moot, though, as the light suddenly turned blindingly bright. Howard scrunched his eyes shut against it and one of the screams fell away into silence.

Kev was still screaming as Howard's eyes recovered enough to register the empty passenger's seat. "Oh my God! Oh my God! Michael? Where are you? What happened?" He was leaning hard against the door, trying to move as far away as possible without having the presence of mind to actually get out of the car.

Oh, shit. Why didn't I think of that? Howard ripped his claws through the seat cover in frustration. He'd been so focused on trying to deal with these two that the danger they were in from those empty Gamieggs didn't even occur to him. Shit. Well, get a grip now, Slinx. Master Kev needs help. And Michael, even more. Damnit. Moving cautiously so as not to freak out Kev any worse than he already was or trigger any of the other empty eggs scattered on the seat, Howard squeezed through the gap into the vacant passenger seat and leaned over to peer down where the triggered egg had been. Kev, fortunately, was too panicked to think of ordering him to back off and just shied away from him.

The Gamiegg that had captured Michael lay on the floor, the jewel on its side still flickering erratically. Howard cocked his head, puzzled. The symbol that had appeared in it to indicate the species of Gamimon now contained within was changing chaotically with every flicker, blurry and indistinct. Is that supposed to be happening? He shook his head. Despite his experience he was hardly an expert, the first time this had happened he'd been on the inside and hadn't had a clue. It's like the egg's confused... well, of course!

Howard gingerly took the egg in his teeth and stood back up, turning to look at Kev. He had stopped screaming, thankfully, and was just staring at him uncomprehendingly now. Okay, master, I don't like you and you don't like me. But please, please understand what I'm trying to get across here. He placed the Gamiegg on the seat next to him. It hasn't changed him yet, it doesn't know what to make of him. Take it and try getting him out. I don't know, try saying 'human, activate!' or 'Michael, activate!'. He worked his jaw, trying to figure out how to give more of a clue without being able to speak, and nosed the egg toward Kev.

Kev blinked, obviously still quite confused and frightened, and glanced over at Howard's Gamiegg still clutched in one hand. Yes, just like me, Howard flicked his ears in hopeful anticipation. Please be smart. I don't know how long-

"Slinx, return!" Kev choked.

No! But Howard's body was already lunging back into his egg, falling into the limbo within. He thrashed and yowled silently in protest but as usual it did no good and he soon began curling back up in the egg's warm embrace. Damn it, Kev, you moron... Howard sighed. There was a brief sense of motion, presumably Kev putting his egg down somewhere, and then the sound of the car's engine starting. Kev was muttering something, too quiet for Howard to make out the words but with a tone that made it obvious he was still scared out of his mind.

The car was moving now and the gentle rocking made being curled up in the egg even more relaxing than usual but Howard found it impossible to doze off. At first he thought it was his own turmoil over what had happened, but he couldn't pin it down to that... it was something external, he realized.

Squirming his phantom body, he imagined himself turning slightly inside the egg. He could sense something nearby. Kev's put me down next to Michael's egg? It was only the vaguest sense... Michael was struggling in there, fighting and frightened. Howard winced, remembering what it was like when he'd first got sucked in, but there didn't seem to be anything he could do to help. Michael didn't seem to be aware of him in turn, there was no way to communicate.

Michael's struggles slowly weakened as the Gamiegg finished its work, finally ceasing. You can never be placed back in the 'wild' stack again, Howard sighed. Poor Michael. I wonder what he's become? Howard curled a little more tightly and tried to ignore the imaginary feel of his own fur - it was just too comfortable for his taste.

Nevertheless, the external disturbance gone, Howard soon drifted off to sleep.

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Howard had no idea how long he slept but when he awakened to the sensation of someone lifting his Gamiegg he was fully charged. Fully charged and ready to be summoned out, muscles tense with energy and mind brimming with eagerness. Here we go, Slinx! Ready for action! Master's gonna use me for... Howard blinked, his train of thought crashing messily to a halt as full awareness finally caught up with him. Oh, hell.

"Slinx, activate." Howard just managed to get his new reflexes back in order before he hit the floor, bouncing slightly on his paws and spinning to see who his master was this time. Kev, of course. They were back in that same messy bedroom again where Howard had first discovered what had happened to him.

How many days had he been out this time? It felt like it must have been several. He was topped up, ready for action, and having a hard time keeping it straight that he shouldn't want to be ready for action. That blasted egg is still affecting me. Howard took a few quick deep breaths to calm himself down.

"Okay Slinx," Kev grunted, drawing Howard's full attention again. "Stay right there. You can understand me, right?"

Howard nodded cautiously, cocking his head a bit as he examined Kev. Kev looked haggard but determined. "Mrrow?"

"You used to be a guy, didn't you. Before you went into this thing and became a Slinx." Howard nodded again, suppressing the momentary thrill of finally being recognized as a person. It's kind of a bit late to figure that out, he grumbled silently.

"So this thing here-" he held up another Gamiegg "-has Michael inside it?"

Presuming it was the same Gamiegg that had gone off in the car, Howard gave yet another cautious nod. Took you long enough to figure that out too.

Kev held the egg out toward him. "What is he? In there, I mean? I have to get him out."

Howard sighed. You're still not a very sharp master. He peered at the egg for a moment, noting that the abstract symbol in the jewel had indeed settled into a final configuration. He didn't recognize it, of course - despite his condition he was no Gamimon expert. Glancing around the room revealed the still-unopened deluxe Gamimon package sitting on the desk with the rest of the stuff he'd taken from the convention hall. Howard gestured toward it with his chin. "Mrrow," he said assertively.

Kev took a moment to figure out what Howard was suggesting, and then paused a little longer before deciding to touch it. He'd evidently become more hesitant about messing with anything Gamimon-related since the last time, which Howard grudgingly admitted might be a slight hint of wisdom on his master's part considering his obvious lack of intelligence at dealing with it. Kev slowly started flipping through the included cards, comparing the symbol on each to the one on Michael's egg. Howard glanced over some of the cards too, trying to get more of a feel for what the game was like.

"Aha, found it," Kev suddenly announced. "Rampede, activate!" Howard dove for cover as Michael exploded out of his Gamiegg in a brilliant red flare, landing with a heavy thud in the middle of the room. Kev gave a yelp of his own and scrambled over his bed for cover.

Cripes, he's big! Howard stopped running as soon as he'd got out from underfoot and peered back at the Gamimon Michael had become. His basic body shape was reminiscent of a Tyrannosaurus Rex - though fortunately not quite that big, standing only five feet tall at the hip and perhaps twelve feet from his nose to the tip of his tail. But quite incongruously, many of his details were evidently based off of a bighorn sheep. His feet were tipped with two massive cloven hooves, he had two huge curled horns and an ovine face, and his skin was coated in a short pelt of brown and white hair rather than scales. He didn't appear to have any forelimbs.

Michael immediately tried straightening up, bashing his head against the ceiling and smashing his huge lizard-like tail down on the desk. He let out a panicked bellowing bleat, tried to look behind him, and staggered sideways to slam into the wall as his tail swung the other way. «Gah! Rampede, calm down!» Howard yowled, cringing. «I mean Michael! Michael, damnit! Stop thrashing!»

To Howard's surprise Michael immediately froze. He carefully turned his head, staying slumped against the wall for stability, and looked at Howard. There was a clear look of panic in his eyes but also a definite sense that he was thinking quickly. Michael worked his jaw and made a mumbled bleating noise as he attempted to speak, as meaningless as Howard's own various attempts, but Howard was again startled to realize he understood Michael perfectly. «Slinx? Is that you? What's happened to me?»

Howard tried not to let his own astonishment get in the way of helping Michael get sorted out. «Oh good, you can understand me,» Howard meowed. He had no idea how his meaning was being conveyed by the animal noises he was making but compared to the other stuff he'd already accepted this wasn't so hard to believe. «I've been through this too. You were captured by an empty Gamiegg. You know you're a Rampede now, right?»

Michael nodded hesitantly. «I... I can't seem to stop thinking it. Rampede. Holy shit, I'm a Rampede. I'm huge.» Michael carefully took his weight off of the wall, allowing his body to stay horizontal to counterbalance his massive tail, and flexed his legs. «Rampede. Wow, this is weird. I felt like I was changing in... I guess I was inside a Gamiegg? Holy shit. But it was all so vague I didn't believe it...» He suddenly snorted, ears flicking back in alarm. «Where are my arms?»

Howard grimaced. This is going to be rough, he thought silently to himself.

Kev finally peered over the edge of the bed, the quick halt to Michael's rampage drawing him out again. "Michael? Oh, man, is that really you?"

Michael flinched, shuffling hooves a little but managing to keep his balance. «Master? I mean... woah.» The alarm in his expression grew as the implications of his own thoughts started to dawn on him and Howard murred sympathetically.

«Yeah, he's got our eggs so he's our master,» Howard confirmed. «Don't freak out about it. Let's just see what the plan is first.» Michael swallowed nervously and nodded.

"You wrecked my room!" Kev may have been quick to cower, but he was apparently quick to recover when something important was at stake. "Aw, man! I how am I going to hide this?"

Howard stifled a surge of anger at Kev's insensitivity and skewed priories, but Michael just looked sheepish. «Sorry, I was just so confused and scared...»

«He can't understand you,» Howard warned Michael, who blinked in surprise - evidently not having noticed until now that he was just making inarticulate growling bleats when he tried to speak. «I've been trying to talk to you from the start, you didn't even notice.»

Michael frowned, puzzled, but Kev didn't notice them conversing now either and interrupted before Michael could respond. "Outside! Go, out, don't wreck anything else! Geeze, what am I going to do?"

Michael blinked in surprise and took an unsteady step toward the bedroom door, still not used to his drastically altered body but compelled to get moving. The tip of his tail swept some posters off one wall but he managed to stagger a relatively straight course into the hall. Howard dodged and shot Kev an annoyed glare, then followed Michael out before his master thought to give him any stupid orders as well.

Kev's bedroom was upstairs, the hallway leading straight to a flight of stairs that went down to the back door. Michael started unsteadily down the steps, tip-toeing gingerly on his hooves as the wood creaked under his weight. «Slinx!» Michael spared a glance back at Howard, a little panic back in his bleat. «I can't open the door without wreaking it! How do I get out of here?»

«Hang on.» Howard slipped past Michael's legs with a quick shadowdash, hoping the clumsy Rampede wouldn't flinch and fall down the stairs in the process, and reared up to wrestle the slippery doorknob open between his paws. As soon as he'd propped the door open far enough Michael stuck his head through and clomped out into the back yard. Howard followed, noting with some relief that it was late evening outside again.

Michael came to a halt and stood steadily for a moment, then carefully folded his legs and collapsed to rest his body on the grass. «Oof. Oh, man...» he shook his head and looked back at his long body and tail. «Kev, why'd you make me do that? For that matter, how'd you make me do that?»

Howard walked up and sat facing Michael. «Same way you made me do all the things you wanted me to when you were my master,» he explained, trying not to sound bitter about it since Michael was in the same boat now. «But hopefully he'll give us a moment to talk. I'm Slinx, by the way.»

Michael cocked his head. «I know.»

«Aw, damn,» Howard hissed as he realized his slip. «I meant I'm Howard. That's my name, Howard Baines. Being a Gamimon messes with my head sometimes.»

Michael pinned his ears back, a number of thoughts evidently passing through his own head. «You... weren't a Gamimon before Xanadu, were you? I mean, you didn't just appear with the egg?»

«Captured, like you. Sorry.»

«Oh, man...» he looked back at himself again, experimentally flexing a leg and almost rolling himself over on his side in the process. «Oof. Okay, this is starting to seriously freak me out. I want to go back to being human again. How do I do that?»

Howard sighed and started prowling back and forth in frustration. «If you've got any ideas on that I would love to hear them. The rule book said we couldn't go back into the wild stack again, whatever that means.»

Michael's eyes widened and he surged back to his feet again too, though with considerably less grace. «But I can't be stuck like this. I've got things to do. I mean, I haven't even got arms, I'm just supposed to smash into things with my head! I don't want to do that...» he trailed off with an odd expression on his face and Howard surmised that he was just now realizing that part of him did want to do that. He let out a whimpering bleat that wasn't intelligible even to another Gamimon.

«Rampede!» Howard snapped. «Get a grip! I've been stuck like this for days already, I know how it feels. But you know more about this stupid game than me, and you know Kev better. We've got to work something out here or we really will be stuck.»

«Okay. Okay.» Michael took a deep breath and gave his body a shake that rippled down to the tip of his tail, trying to clear his head. «God, he's worried about his room? What am I going to tell Mom about this, if I even can? I hope we can get this fixed before she finds out.»

Howard decided not to mention that it had already been at least a full day since the evening Michael had been captured, possibly several, and so his absence had probably already been noticed; Michael kept verging on freaking out enough as it was. «So, what if we try just breaking our eggs?» He suggested.

«I don't know. Let me think... I never played myself, you know, it was just my-» Michael's thought was interrupted by Kev, who came out the back door to join them carrying both of their Gamieggs. They both turned to look at him and waited silently, neither able to think of anything to try communicating on the spur of the moment.

"This is such a cock-up, oh man," Kev muttered plaintively while staring at Michael. "What am I supposed to do with you now? I can't hide something like this!"

«Stupid master,» Howard sighed. «You could always just recall us.»

Michael shot a glance down at Howard. «What? No! I don't want to go back in there!» Howard cringed in embarrassment both because he hadn't realized he'd "spoken" that thought out loud and because he hadn't really realized what he was suggesting. Kev continued speaking, fortunately, so the embarrassment didn't last long before they were both distracted.

"It was supposed to be just a bunch of fun. We were just going to mess around with these things, see what they could do and maybe do some cool stuff." Kev wasn't looking Michael in the eyes as he went on and Howard got the distinct impression he was mostly talking to himself, as if he didn't really believe Michael could understand him. "I don't know what to do! Man, my room is wrecked..."

Howard couldn't believe Kev was still obsessing about a smashed desk and some shelves considering what they'd had to deal with themselves. Michael looked hurt, then shook his head and bleated. «Hey. Can we talk about getting me out of this?» He gave his torso an odd twist that Howard suspected would have been part of a more meaningful gesture if he'd still had arms. «Or how about phoning my Mom? Or anybody?»

"Geeze! Quit that bellowing, Rampede, you'll wake the neighborhood!" Kev waved Michael's Gamiegg in the air to emphasize the command and Michael immediately went silent.

Howard sighed again at Kev's callous idiocy. «He couldn't understand you anyway,» he murmured reassuringly.

"You too, Slinx!" Howard blinked in surprise and would have yowled in indignation had he not already fallen silent as well. "This is no good," Kev lamented. "Michael was the one who knew how to figure this stuff out. I've gotta find someone else who knows something about this. Rampede, return." Michael actually managed to squeeze out one last startled bleat as he vanished in a flare of red light. Howard winced. Oh hell... "You too, Slinx. Return!"

Another flare of light, this time his own.

Well, that didn't work out so well. Damn it! It took Howard a minute to relax even in the soothing warm confines of the Gamiegg. How long would it be until Kev called him out again for advice, or for that matter for anything? The idea of having to wait until Kev figured things out was daunting to say the least. Worst master ever. Oh, if only Michael were still my master...

Howard grimaced. Not exactly the best thing to be reduced to wishing for, but at least he'd had some time on his own to figure some things out while exploring Xanadu. He felt his egg being carried down some stairs, probably back to Kev's room, and then being put down again. Is Michael's egg here too? Hm... It was pitch black in the void and his phantom eyelids were shut, but that only helped Howard relax enough to once again sense his fellow captive nearby. He could feel him more strongly now, actually visualizing the Gamimon curled up and floating in space a short distance away from him. He was twitching, struggling to straighten out or move, and Howard sighed in silent sympathy. Can you hear me, Rampede? I mean, Michael? Give it up, we can't get out again until we're summoned. Just relax and try not to think Gamimon things, it gets to you really strongly when you're recharging in here.

There wasn't any sign of a reaction to his thoughts, nor could Howard hear anything from Michael. Guess it only works when we're out. Maybe it's just to coordinate our moves better. Howard nodded to himself. That made sense. He had to admit, somewhat guiltily, that it would be nice to at least have a fellow captive to commiserate with. They would be summoned by the same master, sent into the same matches... Howard snuggled up inside his egg as he started dozing off, Michael soon doing likewise in the egg beside him, and dreamed of fighting side-by-side.

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Howard was jolted awake again by movement, and as usual was instantly alert and ready to fight on command. It took him quite a while to get beyond that but he finally managed to get a few of his own thoughts in edgewise. Wow, I'm so totally charged. I must have been asleep for a long time. He shuddered slightly, trying to shake himself out while stuck in foetal position. I guess I shouldn't be surprised, he sighed ruefully. I wonder if this means Kev's finally figured out something to do. And if so, I wonder what? The only possibility he could think of involved being summoned out to fight in a match for him, and Howard discounted that as obviously just the Slinx in him talking.

He hoped that once he finally got the chance to do it he'd be able to work a little bit of this unwelcome obsession out of his system, and in the meantime tried to think of other things. He could still sense Michael nearby and spent a while trying to figure out whether he was really 'seeing' him or whether he was just imagining him vividly in the sensory-deprived darkness of the egg. He'd have to remember to ask Michael whether he'd sensed Howard too when they got out. If we get out. Where's Kev taking us, already? Assuming it's even Kev?

Kev hadn't spoken, apparently on his own, and the car had been driving for some time now. Howard would almost have preferred to go back to sleep at this point, lacking anything else to do but stew in his egg trying not to think about how eager he was to get out of it. Fortunately it wasn't very much longer until the car slowed, turned, and bumped to an apparent halt. "Well, here we are," Howard heard Kev finally mutter aloud. He and Michael were picked up and carried.

"Welcome, welcome, it's good to see you!" Howard frowned; he didn't recognize this voice. Michael shifted his legs slightly and Howard wondered if that meant anything. Maybe we can work out a code...

"You're Shade? Well, as long as you know how to fix this I'll be happy too." Howard's full attention was now on the conversation. They were carried inside a building of some sort and set on a table, presumably displayed for the stranger to examine. "The cops still think I had something to do with Michael's disappearance, it's hard not saying anything to anyone."

Michael's twitch was definitely in reaction this time, and Howard grimaced sympathetically. He'd been trying not to think about all the people that'd be wondering where Howard had vanished to, he'd have quite a bit of explaining to do when he finally got out. If he got out. He tried to focus on Shade's response.

Shade chuckled. "The cops are too busy to do anything, lots of people disappeared in the wake of Xanadu. I thought I hadn't been affected myself but yeah... I think this is definitely my bag. I didn't have anything in it though. Definitely not a Slinx."

Well, I'll be. Kev was smart enough to find the guy who was dressed as a Gamimon Master in the first place. "I don't know where the Slinx came from and I don't really care," Kev answered. "But that bag's been spitting out empty eggs and one of them grabbed Michael. So I figure you'll know how to deal with that at least."

"He's a Rampede, eh?" Michael's egg suddenly lifted up away from Howard, evidently picked up to be examined by the man. "A basic Gamimon, not many special moves but strong and tough. Hm." Michael hadn't been taken out of range of Howard's phantom sight and he could see him squirm a little at the clinical analysis. "I don't suppose there was any reason why he became that in particular?"

"I dunno. Just random I guess. Don't call him out, he's too big."

Shade chuckled again. "Oh, I know. Fifteen hundred pounds." He put Michael back down and Howard saw him relax a bit. "Thing is I don't know any way to free a Gamimon from an egg for good. The game specifically tries to make it impossible, in fact. It's to prevent players from stealing or destroying each others' Gamimon permanently in play, you could do that in the first GameBox version and I guess there were complaints. And I certainly wouldn't know any way to turn a Gamimon into a human. They're Gamimon. They only change to their predefined evolutions." Howard winced; that was a pretty categorical statement from someone who seemed to be an expert of sorts.

"So what can you do?"

"First, lemme just check to make absolutely sure this is all legit." Howard suddenly felt his own egg being lifted and the eager anticipation of being summoned surged back into the forefront of his mind. "Slinx, activate!"

Howard bounded out of the egg, landing gracefully on the carpet and spinning to give the surroundings an alert once-over. He was in an apartment living room with a big TV and a rack full of game machines. Kev and Shade were at a coffee table with the satchel and Michael's Gamiegg resting on it. His master looked to be in his mid-thirties, with glasses and long hair and nondescript clothing, and didn't strike him as the sort of person who'd really be named "Shade." Howard flicked his ears, returning his intense gaze. This one seemed quite a bit cleverer than either of his previous two masters and he hoped that this time he'd be able to get a word in edgewise with him.

Shade laughed delightedly. "He looks just like I thought he would! No tooniness, an actual real breathing creature. Neat!" Howard cocked his head, not sure whether to take that as a compliment.

"Yeah, it's real alright," Kev sighed with exasperation. "But what can you do about it?"

"I can buy him off you," Shade offered.

Howard blinked, caught thoroughly off guard. "Mrowl!?"

"What, the Slinx?" Kev was a little confused too. "How will that help?"

"No, I mean everything. Slinx, Rampede, and bag. I'll take the whole problem off your hands. Don't worry about the cops, what would they even be able to charge you with? And nobody knows you've come to meet me, right?"

Howard turned to look at Kev, and was aghast to see that he was apparently considering it. "I don't know, it doesn't seem right. How about just the Slinx and the bag?"

Howard could imagine Michael being relieved inside his egg at that, but that didn't set his own mind at ease any. "Rrow," he announced, stepping forward to assert himself in the discussion.

"Slinx, be quiet and stay still," Shade commanded. Goddamnit! Not this one too! Howard sat down and fumed. But then Shade grinned at him and added, "I'll speak with you in a minute." Howard blinked again, trying to set aside his fury. Master Shade's got a plan. Let's see what it is.

Shade turned back to Kev and asked rhetorically, "what good's just one Gamimon? I'll offer you a thousand bucks for all three items." Kev hesitated, thinking about it again, and Shade raised his offer to fifteen hundred dollars. I can't believe he's actually considering selling his friend for that, Howard grumbled to himself.

"No, it just doesn't seem right." Kev shook his head. "I should get Michael back somehow. I can't just get rid of him."

Shade sighed. "Plan B, then. I suppose it's riskier, but for the best if it works. How about if I toss in this instead?" He reached into the pouch, pulled out an empty Gamiegg, and threw it to Kev. Kev caught it without thinking.

Howard made an odd choking noise, caught as much by surprise as Kev was, and just managed to shut his eyes in time to avoid the brilliant red flare. The egg fell to the carpet with a soft thump. Oh, crap.

"Oh, good." Shade jumped to his feet and hurried over, crouching to examine the Gamiegg. "I didn't know for sure that'd work." He frowned at the flickering gibberish being displayed on the egg's jewel, and looked up at Howard. "You've seen this happen once before, right Slinx? Is this okay? It'll settle down as something useful, like Kev said happened with his friend?"

Howard just stared at Shade, unsheathing his claws into the carpet in frustration. Are you completely insane?

Shade laughed, apparently a little giddy with relief that his plan had worked. "You can talk or make noises now or whatever," he offered. After a moment of continuing stony silence from Howard, he continued on his own. "I imagine you're probably a former person too, right? I didn't have any Gamimon eggs at all in my pouch when I was at the convention, and this game isn't as wildly popular as Pokemon. I bet I was the only one dressed as a Gamimon Master. I've been kicking myself ever since, you know. I could have gone there dressed as... oh, I don't know, anything, and got all sorts of powers. Instead I dropped the one thing I did get out of it when I ran away." He picked up the satchel and hugged it to his chest with a happy sigh. "It is a pretty cool game, isn't it?"

Howard snorted. «Not from the inside, master asshole.»

Shade actually looked disappointed for a moment, Howard's attitude clear even if his actual words weren't. "Oh. Well, don't worry. This is going to be fun. You were wasted on that loser, I promise. You've got a name besides 'Slinx' I take it? Or do you not remember? Some people from Xanadu don't remember who they were before." The irony was palpable, finally someone was asking Howard his name and now he didn't want to give it to him. He just growled under his breath instead. "Well, whatever. 'Slinx' will do. Tell me, Slinx, did Kev and Michael use you for anything good? Did they train you at all?"

Howard snorted again, but then after a moment longer a small sigh escaped and he grudgingly shook his head.

"Well if you're going to be my Gamimon I'll have to fix that," Shade chuckled. "A Slinx, a Rampede, and a... well, whatever that one's going to turn out as. A decent enough starting deck. I'm going to have to plan this out now. I've got to get rid of this guy's car, hope nobody saw him arrive... sorry, Slinx, I don't think you can help with this just yet. Slinx, return."

Gah! Howard squirmed inside his egg, furious beyond belief. Out of the frying pan and into the fire. I've gone from stupid master to smart but crazy master! Then, with a sigh, he quit struggling and allowed himself to relax in the darkness again. And yet another person's been caught up in this. At least it was just Kev. Still, that tears it. First chance I get, Gamimon or not, I'm out of here.

It wasn't a particularly credible resolution considering he was currently trapped inside an egg and would be bound to Shade's orders whenever he was let out again, but it was something to hang on to. And at least now he was going to have some allies.

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Shade's car sounded different from Kev's. Howard flicked his ears and tried to concentrate on that sound, picking out whatever details he could hear to suggest where they might be driving to. There wasn't much hope of getting anything useful but at least it was distracting him from other things he didn't want to think about right now.

Michael and Kev were with him. Or at least he assumed it was Kev; while he could sense Michael's curled Rampede form quite clearly inside his egg, the other Gamimon was still just an indistinct presence. Must not have figured out his new body image yet, Howard guessed. Perhaps the egg hasn't settled on one. He'd dozed off at least once so it was hard to say just how much time had passed since he'd been stolen by Shade. It didn't feel like it had been very long this time, though.

Nothing he could do about that right now, though. He refocused his attention on the sounds filtering in from the outside world. They'd been on a highway for a while but Shade had finally turned off into a side road of some sort. There was no sound of other traffic, perhaps it was late at night... The car pulled to a stop and Howard shook his head. I'll find out soon enough, I take it. They were picked up and carried out of the car for quite a distance, Shade's breathing starting to come heavy from the hike.

«...come on, let me out. I gotta get out of here...»

Howard blinked in surprise; that had definitely been Michael's bleating "voice" he'd heard. «Rampede? That you?»

«Slinx!» Michael shifted slightly in the egg next to his. «Can you hear me? Oh thank god, I don't know what's going on. I'm still trapped in here!»

This was new. Why could he communicate this time? Howard flicked his ears and took a guess; he was sensing Michael as being right next to him, almost touching, so perhaps their Gamieggs were actually touching each other out there in the real world. Shade must be carrying them inside the same pocket. Or maybe it was just a question of time and experience. «Weird. Ram... I mean, Michael. Calm down, I think we'll be let out again soon. Can you talk to Kev yet?»

«Um... Kev? Kev! Answer me!» Michael shook his head, squirming a little in a futile attempt to reorient himself to face Howard more directly. «No, I don't think so. Where are we?»

«Other than inside Gamieggs, I have no idea. You don't know this 'Shade' guy, I take it?»

«No!» Michael growled, a sound more in keeping with his saurian shape than his sheeplike features. «I can't believe Kev considered selling me. I'm not... Not a thing...» He sounded uncertain.

Howard sighed «Unfortunately, we're pretty close right now. Remember how you couldn't disobey Kev? When Shade calls us out it'll be the same with him. I have no idea what he plans to do with us.»

«Oh geeze... what should we do?»

«Whatever our master tells us to do,» Howard answered. He'd meant to sound bitter but it came out unsettlingly matter-of-fact; to his Slinx side it was just the way things worked. «Rrr. But also, we should keep an eye out for chances to do anything other than that. You read up on the game, right? I don't know much about it, we should discuss how it works.»

«Um, okay. But really, it was my brother who played it-»

Shade finally stopped and Howard had only a moment's forewarning as Shade reached to pick him up. «Don't let him know what we're thinking!» He added hurriedly. «It's our one advant-» Shade pulled Howard out of wherever the three of them were being stored, breaking the contact between their eggs and abruptly cutting off their conversation. Howard allowed the foreign Gamimon excitement at his impending summoning to flood out, readying himself to emerge. "Slinx, activate!"

They were in the shade of a grove of trees at the edge of an empty field overgrown with wild grass and weeds that stood significantly taller than Howard did. For an instant Howard considered bolting immediately, but quickly decided against it; Shade still had his egg. He turned to look at him.

Shade tucked Howard's egg back in his bag and pulled out another. "Rampede next. Anything I should know about him before I call him out?"

Howard snorted and shook his head. «What's to tell? He's your Rampede.»

"Okay. I take it he's even greener than you are, so fill him in for me, okay? Rampede, activate!"

Michael's hooves thudded to the ground and he staggered, barely keeping his footing. «Oh thank God!» he bleated. «I'm out again! Oh, I wanted so much...» He trailed off and turned, looking back and forth between Shade and Howard.

«Stay calm, Michael,» Howard murmured. «Let's just see what our master plans for now and figure out what to do about it later.»

Michael gave an uncertain nod. Shade waited for a moment after they fell silent, evidently not able to understand their speech any better than Kev had, and then gave a nod of his own. "This is so awesome, you're huge. Rampede, turn around, would you? Let me have a look." Michael snorted and complied, still a little unsteady, displaying himself for Shade and flattening a swath of the tall grass while he was at it. "Awesome. I can't wait to see what you can do. Let's get your friend out first, though. This is his very first time." He tucked Michael's egg away and pulled out Kev's.

"Sheenix, activate!" Howard was ready for the red flare of Kev's summoning, but it was followed by an even more brilliant yellow flare and a piercing shriek that made him wince. All he got was the impression that Kev was relatively small - about the same size as he was - and then he'd flopped awkwardly away into the tall grass before Howard's eyes had recovered enough to make out more. "Oh, crap!" Shade was a bit taken aback himself. "Settle down! Crap! Sheenix, stop!" Kev's thrashing flight halted as soon as he was in the grip of an order from his Gamimon master. A trail of smoke started curling up from the grass where he'd stopped. "Not good, that'll draw attention if it spreads. Slinx, quick; put that fire out!"

«What? Why me?» Howard wasn't particularly eager to dive into the smoldering weeds after the panicked Gamimon but an order was an order. He bounded down the short scorched path toward the glittering form sprawled at the end. Despite the urgency of Shade's command, however, he still skidded to a surprised halt and stared for a moment at Kev once he had a clear view.

The Sheenix was a huge golden bird, plumage literally metallic yellow with sunlight glinting brightly off of it. The beak was predatory, hooked like a falcon's, and so were the taloned feet. Most eye-catching of all, though, was the crest of flames that danced on his head - it didn't look big enough to have set all the little fires now creeping through the flattened vegetation under Kev's outstretched wings, but clearly the Sheenix had some sort of abilities in that field. «Get up, Kev!» Howard growled, pouncing to stamp out some of the nearer hot spots with his paws. «I know you're probably freaked out and have no idea what's going on, but you're setting the grass on fire!»

Kev gave an inarticulate caw and thrashed again for a moment, wings generating a momentary fringe of flame along their trailing edges when they flapped and only making the situation worse. But then Kev finally seemed to catch on that his limbs weren't working the way they should and slowly propped himself up, pulling his legs under him and staggering to his feet. «Woah!» He screeched, his "voice" pitched high like a falcon's cry, «I-I can't-» he stumbled forward, unused to his new balance but fortunately not flailing enough to set any additional fires in the process.

«Rrr. Just hold still...» Howard pounced from ember to ember, moving too quickly for the heat to get through the pads on his paws. Fortunately the grass was reasonably wet and was mostly went out on its own, though his gray-and-black fur got even more smudged with soot in the process. «There. Now be careful then you turn around, one foot at a time, and don't worry about trying to straighten up your posture. It's...» Howard trailed off, surprised all over again as Kev shuffled awkwardly around to face him.

Sheenix was clearly a female Gamimon. Her torso had feminine humanoid curves, not nearly as bird-like under the gold feathers as the rest of her body, and as an added blatant touch she even had long black eyelashes. «...pretty,» Howard concluded, shaking his head. «You have got to be kidding me.»

«Slinx?» Kev cheeped nervously, even her imaginary voice coming across as feminine. «You can talk?» She crossed her eyes to examine her beak, reaching up to pat it awkwardly with her fingerless wings. «Awk! And I can't! What's happened to me?»

«I can understand you just fine,» Howard growled. «And my name is Howard.»

"Are you done yet? Both of you, get back here!"

Kev stumbled a bit, spreading her wings to keep her balance as she took an unprepared step. «Coming, master! I mean... oh, please, Slinx! What's going on?» She sounded completely bewildered and on the verge of tears.

Howard sighed. «Oh, I'll explain on the way.» Kev had been annoyingly dumb when she'd been the master herself, but Howard grudgingly decided he shouldn't hold it against her now that she was a Gamimon too. He padded along beside her and tried to give as quick a summary of their situation as he could without confusing Kev further. Even at Kev's tottering pace it didn't take long to get back to Shade and Michael.

"Heh, bit of a rough start there," Shade chuckled nervously. "I take it you remember our meeting."

Kev stared up at Shade, wide-eyed and far more nervous herself, and nodded. Michael glared down at both of them and grumbled in the back of his throat, also remembering and not tremendously happy with Kev himself. The bird cringed.

"Well, relax. Just relax. I didn't want to capture you, you know, even though it was the smart thing to do even if you'd sold me everything. You'd know who I was if I let you go, after all. But hey, it worked out really well. A Sheenix is great for a starter! I have no idea why you became one, though. Something to figure out later I guess. In the meantime, let's get started."

Shade had apparently brought them out to the middle of nowhere so that he could try them all out, putting them through their paces and seeing what they could do for real. For Howard it was a similar experience to the time Michael and Kev had taken him out to the park and he actually found himself kind of enjoying it more this time. Shade had him dashing through the undergrowth, finding plenty of shadows to dodge through despite the bright sunlight, and climbing the trees - it was the first time he'd done that and was surprised by how easily his claws found purchase on bark. Though not so much coming down again, giving him unexpected insight into the old cliché of a cat stuck in a tree.

Michael, too, got into his workout and surprised himself with how much he enjoyed it. Rampede was a mighty runner, thundering along with his body held out straight and low. He nearly lost it the first time Shade ordered him to ram one of the trees, a flinch in his tail swinging him around so that he struck with his armless 'shoulder' rather than his massive curled horns. Howard winced at the meaty thud, imagining that bruise that was sure to leave. But the second time Michael kept his resolve, piling head-first into the trunk and cracking the roots enough to put an obvious tilt in it. «Yeah! Take that, uh... tree.» Michael looked more than a little sheepish at his triumphant bleat as it dawned on him what sort of a triumph it was.

Shade at least had the decency to give Kev some time to herself at first, to get used to her new condition. Once he was done with Howard and Michael, though, he sent her out to try some of her moves too. Teaching her to fly was somewhat difficult, even given that Kev had no choice but to try when ordered to, since none of them really knew how to actually do it. But eventually Kev managed to dig up the right instincts and actually listened to them. Howard found himself admiring her form once she was airborne; the combination of sunlight glinting off of Sheenix feathers and the fringe of fire that trailed her wings and tail when she flew was really quite striking. She didn't exactly put a lot of grace into it, though, and made it very clear each time she landed that she was glad to be on the ground again. A first-level Sheenix only had one special move, a flaming wing-buffet, so once she'd swooped down and scorched a target log a few times she got her wish and went back to sitting quietly by the woods.

Having been through all this before Howard was able to divide his attention and keep an eye on Shade. Shade clearly knew all about their abilities from the game and was openly delighted with each one they demonstrated for real; it was hard for Howard to resist feeling a sense of pride even as he resented being made to show them off. Shade didn't seem interested in listening in whenever the three of them 'talked' with each other, though, which was promising. As for what Shade might have planned with them beyond just running around and practicing, Howard couldn't guess.

All too soon practice time was over and Shade summoned them back into their eggs. Howard had used up almost a third of his energy by then and felt a strange mixture of relief and disappointment, curling back up to recharge while he tried to make plans. Wasn't much chance to find help out in that empty field, he mused. Should have tried getting someone's attention when I was in Xanadu after all. Oh well. What to try next time Shade takes us out there, is the question...

Shade was apparently carrying their eggs inside the bag he'd retrieved from Xanadu, Howard could feel it swinging around as they were brought back to Shade's car. There was a lot of room in the bag so their three eggs jostled about loosely, but just as Shade stashed the bag on the floor for the drive back Kev's egg rolled over to rest firmly against Howard's.

Now that Kev had been summoned once her body image was quite clear in Howard's imaginary view and for a moment Howard hesitated to talk to the beautiful golden bird curled up beside him, feeling awkward. It's just Kev in there he reminded himself firmly. And he could still be helpful. «Hey, Kev,» he started.

Kev flinched, the soft flames on the crest of her head flaring briefly in the void as she reacted in surprise. «Slinx! You're really there? We can speak?»

Howard nodded. «Yeah, apparently. But only when our eggs are touching.»

«I can't believe we're actually inside those things. But I can't move, so I guess we must be. And I'm still this...» Kev shuddered, wings twitching slightly as she tried to draw them around to cover more of her body. «God. I'm just thinking my voice and it sounds like a girly bird's! Why am I a girl bird? I'm a guy, I'm a guy!»

Kev's repetition sounded a bit desperate, so Howard nodded and tried to sound reassuring. «I know. I remember you from before, after all. Rampede does too. I mean, Michael. Maybe there are only female Sheenix, or they just look female. I don't know if Gamimon even have genders.» That last thought kind of creeped Howard out, bringing up a whole panoply of unsettling possibilities, but he kept it out of his demeanor.

Kev trembled again. «I can't live like this. I can't even think straight, I just keep thinking master this, master that... What can I do, Slinx? I'm trapped!»

«Good question...» Howard pondered. Of the three of them, Kev was actually best suited to make a break for it and get help - a fast flyer and very eye-catching. But Kev was evidently having a very rough time getting used to her new abilities and Howard wasn't about to rely on her for anything at this point. But on the other hand, he wasn't so sure he could rely on Michael either. Michael seemed to be taking to his training with surprising eagerness. He was pretty upset with being a Gamimon at first, almost as much as Kev here. What's changed? Howard reflected on his own lurking desire to be a better Slinx and wondered if perhaps Michael was getting caught up more strongly in the Rampede version of them. If so then Kev might be the better conspirator of the two. «We're all trapped, Kev. But maybe we can figure out some way to escape this, at least get away from Shade. Don't wig out on us, okay? We might need you for this.»

«Okay...» Kev sighed and her feathers rustled quietly as she tried squirming a little to roll herself facing away from Howard. «I'm sorry about everything,» she added after a moment of silence.

«You mean making me run around doing tricks like a pet dog back when you were my master?»

Kev shook her head. «No, about being so stupid and getting us caught by Shade. Though I guess that too. Sorry. I didn't think.»

Howard rolled his eyes. «Make it up to us by trying to think more now. You know more about Shade than I do, see if you can come up with-»

The car hit a bump and their eggs jostled slightly apart, breaking contact. Howard sighed. Stupid timing. Not that Kev really knows all that much, after all. Kev had apparently never even thought to look up Shade's real name once she'd found out where he lived, it was unlikely she'd be able to come up with any bright ideas now in her current distressed state.

Not that Howard had any bright ideas of his own. Need to wait some more, I guess. Shade knows we can talk to each other out there, I was pretty stupidly obvious about that, but there's no way he could know we can still talk and hear inside these eggs. Maybe once I figure out more about him something will come up and I can get away.

And then after that... Howard shook his head and tried to get some sleep. He couldn't think that far ahead right now. He needed to focus on his training first. Become even better at being a Slinx, figure out what to do with it when the need arose. He'd be told what he needed to do.

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Shade took them out to the same field two more times in the following days. He was getting more confident in his ability to control them, but Howard grudgingly admitted that it was unlikely he'd let that confidence lead him to make mistakes any time soon; he always kept their Gamieggs securely in his possession, and had discovered through experimentation that he could summon them back into them from at least several football fields' distance away.

The game had been designed to make it very difficult indeed for a Gamimon Master to lose his possessions against his will. Howard would have to wait for just the right opportunity to get ahold of his own Gamiegg and smash it somehow. He figured that whatever the rules might say about not being able to go back to the 'wild stack' again, it would at least make it impossible for anyone to be his master any more. Maybe it would even change him back into a human again, though he wasn't going to bet on it.

Howard had several opportunities to converse with both Michael and Kev while in their eggs coming to or going from the practice field. Neither knew much more about the Gamimon game than Howard had already picked up, but they did know a fair bit about what had happened at Xanadu - at least, what the news had been reporting about it. As Howard had guessed from the brief time he'd snuck around in there, everyone had suddenly turned into whatever they were dressed as. Many had gained magical powers in the process, something Howard was more than willing to accept without question considering what he himself had gone through. But none of them had managed to find any way to change themselves or anyone else back as far as either of them had heard.

The idea that they might be stuck like this permanently was a hard one to accept, and one that none of them wanted to talk about. Kev barely wanted to talk about anything at all, for that matter, sulking in her egg. She didn't like hearing her own imaginary voice, her apparent change in gender was hitting her even harder than becoming a flaming bird or being controlled by a Gamimon master had. Michael, on the other hand, wouldn't stop talking about how different he felt. It was a daily struggle to get them to discuss ideas for escape.

In the meantime, Howard allowed his Gamimon urges to be satisfied with more training. Shade was getting more daring with what he was having them do; he'd had them race each other, sent Howard hunting rabbits (fortunately with no success), and even had Kev dunk her head in a bucket of water just to see what would happen to her perpetual crest of flame. It had sputtered underwater but hadn't gone out, though Kev had complained vigorously about the discomfort - the first time her stubborn withdrawn facade had cracked - and Shade had promised not to ask him to do that again. Howard found himself becoming quite agile and even comfortable moving around on all fours, to the point where he wondered if he'd have to relearn walking on his hind legs if and when he ever got back into his real body.

On the third trip out Shade went so far as to try riding Michael. He'd brought along a length of rope that he tied to Michael's curled ram's horns as a crude set of reins, a process Howard could tell Michael was rather unsettled about. Shade had to order him to hold still, and then order him again to crouch down so that he could climb onto Michael's back. But once he got going trotting around the field, Michael seemed to lose his inhibitions once again and fell into the role.

Howard bounded along beside, managing to keep pace with Michael's easy gait and watching Shade ride. If he fell off of there... «Hey, Rampede!» Howard panted. «Now's our chance! Try tossing him, I'll grab the bag when he drops it!»

Michael's ears flicked back and he faltered slightly, a conflicted expression crossed his face. Shade glanced down at the sound of Howard's 'speech', saw him keeping pace, and waved. "Hey, Slinx! Try keeping up now!" He gave Michael's reins a flick and kicked his heels, urging the Rampede into a full run. Howard lost Michael's attention as the Rampede focused his attention on moving faster without jarring Shade too roughly.

Howard hissed, falling behind. Damnit. I wonder if Michael's started thinking too much like a Gamimon. He hadn't discussed the matter with Michael much, the insistent urgings of his Slinx mind had been a rather uncomfortable subject. But perhaps if Michael had just given up fighting it he might not be able to think of disobeying now that he needed to. Gotta keep up. Maybe snap him out of it.

The grass had been flattened and scorched over a large area by the previous days' activities, but there were still big tufts all over the place. Howard diverted over to one, lunging into its shade and coming out in a shadowdash. He streaked right out in front of Michael before coming out, briefly in the lead again. Michael bleated and dodged slightly to the side to avoid him. «Slinx! Watch it! I can't drop master Shade!»

Yeah, he's not thinking straight. Michael passed him, still at full gallop, and Howard shadowdashed again to keep up. He wove under Michael's nose, trying once again to distract him. «Come on, Michael, if you drop him he might not be master any more-»

Howard's thought was cut off by Michael's panicked bellow. Howard had only a split second of triumph as the Rampede's gait faltered, his attempt to dodge Howard throwing him hopelessly off stride. Then his own agility failed him and a cloven hoof the size of his head came down squarely on his back.

There was a moment of pain and an all-consuming flare of red light, and then Howard was floating curled up in a familiar black void.

Ow? Howard was thoroughly stunned and for a moment thought he might be dead. No! I don't want to go to heaven as a Slinx! Oh... wait. No. I'm back in my egg. Did Shade call me back? Howard strained his ears, hearing muffled commotion outside, and shuddered. No, he'd screwed up and accidentally thrown himself under Michael's feet. He gingerly tried flexing a little, and found that even though he'd definitely been stepped on he didn't feel any injury - just a tiredness so profound it almost ached. I'm completely out of energy, he realized. That's never happened before.

If he'd managed to make Michael toss Shade it hadn't done any good. He felt himself being held aloft. "Slinx, activate!" Shade's voice, Howard noted dully. Sounds kinda worried. Then he realized that although he'd felt a slight reflexive twinge at the command, he was still resting quite solidly inside his egg. "Slinx, activate!" Shade tried again. Howard got a little worried now too; that time he'd been ready and quite willing to obey the call but he still didn't budge.

"Oh, I get it," Shade's voice switched to a relieved tone. "Heh. You knocked him out of combat, Rampede. He's out of energy, so he's down until he's recovered back to minimum. But I think he'll be fine again after that." Howard heard a bleat from Michael, also sounding relieved.

Howard didn't have the energy to actually understand what Shade was talking about, but it seemed reassuring. Not going to Slinx heaven, then. Thank God. Slinx heaven would be full of fighting. There was still a lot of sound and motion outside his egg, Shade still talking and even a distant screeching and rush of wings from Kev, but Howard was so tired that the shock of being crushed had passed that he soon fell asleep despite it all.

He woke up still feeling a bit sluggish but still gripped by the same urgency he always felt waking up as a Gamimon; yes! I'm going to be summoned! Between the two it didn't give him much opportunity to think before the command came. He found himself able to rouse himself out of the egg this time, appearing back in Shade's apartment.

Howard blinked, glancing around a little unsteadily, and stifled a yawn. Okay, I'm alive again. Good... but now what? Shade was sitting on his couch, and Howard noticed two Gamieggs tucked away on a shelf beside the TV - presumably Michael and Kev were still sleeping in those. Something you want just one-on-one? He sat down on his haunches and looked expectantly at his master.

"Gave me a bit of a scare there, Slinx," Shade chuckled. "I know what the game rules say about what happens when a Gamimon is 'killed', but I still wasn't exactly eager to test that sort of thing. You feeling better now?" Howard still felt pretty wiped out, but under the circumstances he figured he was feeling fine. Nothing a few more hours recharging inside the Gamiegg wouldn't cure, at any rate. He nodded.

"Okay. You still look tired, but I guess you'll recover from that. I wanted to check." Howard snorted, knowing he shouldn't be surprised at Shade's concerned tone - he was one of Shade's prized possessions, after all - but still a little unsettled by it. So, master, what do you want me to do for you? Howard made sure to lay on the sarcasm despite the fact that he was the only one to hear the thought.

"At this point I think I've tried out all the various abilities the rules say you guys should have, and it all checks out. You seem to be getting pretty good at using them, too. Well, except Sheenix, I guess she still remembers enough to be sore at me even though she does what I tell her... anyway. Since you just confirmed that you can't be permanently harmed outside your egg, I'm thinking you guys are just about ready to try something for real."

Shade paused, as if waiting for Howard to respond, but Howard couldn't guess exactly what Shade meant. Well, aside from the one idea that had his Slinx side hopping with eager glee despite his fatigue - that Shade wanted to match them in combat against other Gamimon. Howard clamped down on that irrational exuberance; there aren't any other Gamimon, he grumbled at his own rebellious subconscious. He cocked his head at Shade, a deliberately ambiguous gesture.

"There's a guy I know who plays Gamimon, I play against him sometimes. Feel up to have a match? After you finish recharging, of course."

But...! Howard had no idea how Shade was planning to do it but he wasn't able to keep the excitement bottled up no matter how confused it made him. He gave a loud meow and got back up to all fours, restless despite his fatigue. Shade laughed and Howard gave him a hurt expression that only made him chuckle more. Against what? How will I even know how to fight it? Howard was having a hard time sorting out which of his questions were his own and which were the Slinx in him talking, though since he couldn't actually ask any of them he realized it was kind of moot. He forced himself to relax again and wait for Shade to explain himself further.

"I take that as a yes," Shade said. "Oh, I'm so glad you're willing! So many people at Xanadu just changed in body, not in spirit, and Sheenix is making me worry. It'd suck to have real Gamimon but not be able to play with them. But you, Slinx, you're going to be my favorite. I can tell. You're a good all-around Gamimon. So you're going to help me lead the others, okay?"

Howard furrowed his brow. You're really nuts, aren't you? Oh, hell, maybe not as much as I am. Am I really willing? The Slinx in me is and I don't even know what it feels willing about! He shook his head, trying to clear it.

Shade misinterpreted the gesture. "Oh, don't worry, Slinx. I don't mean you'll be deciding strategy or anything. It's just that everyone needs a solid Gamimon to build a deck around, to act as the center. Slinx are versatile, so you're good for that."

Build a deck around? Howard almost shook his head again but stopped for a moment to think beyond the confusing gut reactions. Wait, maybe this is an opportunity after all. Shade's crazy, but he's extending me some trust here. One way or another I should take it. He nodded cautiously.

"Alright!" Shade grinned and reached over to pat Howard on the head. Shade hadn't tried touching him much before, Howard had always made it clear that it was unwelcome and Shade had been nervous of the big cat even after all the commands he'd obeyed. This time, though, Howard grudgingly allowed it. Take his trust, Howard... he stifled the growl in the back of his throat.

Shade stopped after just a few pats, fortunately, and took Howard's Gamiegg back out of his pocket. "I should let you rest up now, I guess. It'll take at least a couple of days to get everything ready so you should be a hundred percent again when I need you. You're totally going to kick ass, I know it. Slinx, return!"

Howard slid back into the warm darkness again, feeling relieved both due to his remaining physical fatigue and due to the confusion. As much as he wanted Shade to explain more about what lunacy he was planning, what he'd been through already had frayed his nerves enough. If I ever purr when petted, someone shoot me. He curled tighter, not liking the fact that he was actually being held in Shade's hand even now - It gave him vertigo if nothing else. He relaxed again a moment later, though, as Shade placed him on the shelf next to the other two.

He could tell they were both still sleeping and knew he'd be joining them shortly. He tried to stave it off, though, since Slinx thoughts came more naturally on the verge of sleep and he wanted to try figuring out what to expect. Maybe Shade's going to have me fight Michael and Kev? A possibility, I guess, though I don't think I'd be a good match against either of them... He spent a moment imagining what strategies he might use against each and then shook it off. No. That wouldn't make sense, he wants to put me in the same deck as them. I mean, on the same side.

Maybe this mystery Gamimon master Shade had mentioned had also gone to Xanadu in costume? Maybe. Wonder if that means he's got a magic bag too. Should've looked for more when I was in Xanadu, might have been able to find more Gamimon for master Michael after all... Howard blinked, catching himself. Gah. I'm too tired for this. I need to recharge. He closed his eyes and tucked his face under a furry forearm, pondering only briefly what sort of arena he might be summoned into when he awoke again.

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«...up, Howard! Wake up already!» Howard yawned, fully charged but still a bit slow to return to full awareness despite Kev's urgent high-pitched Sheenix voice. Not a master coming to summon... wait a minute. Shade's intentions came back to mind and he roused himself fully.

Michael was there too, their three eggs bundled together. He could hear that they were in a car on the highway again. But this time there was a major difference; he sensed three more vague presences clustered a short distance away. «Oh, man. Where did Shade find those?»

«I dunno, but they're more Gamimon, aren't they? I can't tell which ones, we're being carried in separate groups and I can't see them, but I definitely feel 'em there.» Michael's imaginary Rampede voice was slower and deeper than Kev's but he still managed to put just as much urgency into it. «What're we going to be doing, do you know? Is master Shade going to summon all six of us out together?»

«Hold your horses, there. Yeah, I think so. You guys haven't been out since I got stomped?»

«Neither of us,» Kev answered. «You had me worried there.»

«Sorry about that,» Michael added sheepishly. «I was just focusing so much on-»

«Yeah, that's okay, never mind,» Howard interrupted. «Shade had me out to check on me when he got home with us afterward. He said he wanted to enter us into a match

Kev managed to keep restrained but Michael let out an excited bellow, causing them both to wince. «Sorry,» Michael apologized again.

«So those guys over there must be our opponents,» Kev concluded. «Did Shade say where he was getting them from?»

Howard cocked his head at the golden bird, a little surprised at how quick on the uptake Kev was getting. «No. And I didn't see any others in Xanadu when you guys sent me in there, either.»

«Oh. Well...» Kev trailed off.

Howard strained his imaginary senses trying to snag any sort of feel for the nature of the three. He couldn't even tell their relative sizes; even Michael and Kev seemed the same size as himself when they were all inside their Gamieggs so there was no way of gauging these new ones. «You guys woke up before me, can you tell whether there's anyone else in the car?»

«Oh! Yes, I'm pretty sure there's someone back there with them. Assuming we're in the front of the car. He hasn't said much, though. He called Shade 'Lare' at one point, maybe short for 'Larry?'»

Howard had to chuckle despite the situation they were in. «Master Larry doesn't have quite the same ring to it.»

«Yes, let's stick with Shade,» Michael chimed in. «So, we're going to fight when we get wherever we're going?»

«Yeah, I think so. Though damned if I know how.» Howard perked his ears and listened more closely to the sounds filtering into the egg. «We're on the highway again... maybe we're headed to the same place we did all that training.»

Kev snorted. «Shade's not very smart.»

Howard cocked his head, biting back the thought of look who's talking. «What do you mean?»

«He's got three magical beasts bound to his every whim, and he's just going to do what the game says he should do with us?» Kev's voice wavered between strong resolve and cracking, but she kept it mostly steady. «I mean, not that I don't want to fight... shit, it's so weird, I want to fight for him. But why doesn't he have us robbing stores or something? It was the first thing I thought of.»

«Maybe he's not that bad,» Michael suggested.

Kev snorted again, almost vigorously enough to count as a sneeze. «He did this to me!»

«And you almost sold me to him!»

«Guys!» Howard yowled, cutting off their argument before it got into full swing. Fortunately they both fell silent, since there wasn't much else he could do to intervene. «Tension's pretty high with a match coming, right? But we've got to stick together on this one. We've practiced our moves but we've never even sparred with each other, let alone with these other Gamimon.»

That managed to divert the subject pretty thoroughly, to Howard's relief, but the ensuing speculative chatter about what they might be facing made it hard to ponder anything else. It didn't help that the only one among them who'd done any real reading on the other types of Gamimon was Michael and he didn't remember it very well. But Howard remembered Shade's comments earlier about him being their 'leader' in the fight to come and so he tried to put some thought into it too.

The car eventually came to a halt, Shade and the mystery master getting out and taking all the Gamieggs with them. The jostling disrupted the contact between them and ended their conversation for now. "Head over to that big tree at the other end of the field," Shade instructed the stranger. "That'll be a good starting point for your team. I'll head over there. Summon 'em all out and then give me a wave when you're ready."

"Right. This is going to be cool." The mystery master sounded young, younger even than Kev and Michael had been. Howard hoped that meant he wouldn't command well. Where did he get those Gamimon from, anyway? Kev had told him she had got ahold of his egg because it had somehow got swept out of Xanadu in the confusion and wound up where he'd found it in the parking lot, a coincidence unlikely to have been repeated often.

"Slinx, activate!" The cue cut off further speculation and Howard landed on the grass in a predatory crouch. "Rampede, activate! Sheenix, activate!" The other two joined him. They were back in the familiar training field again, as he'd sort of expected, though the place seemed a bit more trampled than they'd last left it. Howard turned and squinted through the sunlight at the mystery master over by the big tree Shade had sent him to, perking his ears to listen as he summoned his own trio out.

"Sentree, activate!" Howard blinked in surprise as a second 'tree' appeared near the first, a strange-looking plant with a thick gourd-like trunk and a spray of palm fronds at the top. There were big eyes at the bases of the fronds and the whole tree twisted slightly to focus on them though it remained solidly rooted in place. "Porkine, activate!" A creature that looked like a porcupine the size of a small pony appeared, a haystack of quills with a tusked boar-like face at the front. It immediately puffed up, quills raising and rattling slightly. "And Dragote, activate!" The third Gamimon was a strange sphinx-like hybrid of canine and dragon with a dog-like front half, reptilian hindquarters and tail, and a large pair of green batwings folded on his back.

«Crap, what are those?» Kev's crest blazed fiercely but her high voice held an edge of panic.

«Stay calm. Michael, do you know any of these?»

Before Michael could answer Howard's question, though, Shade gestured for their attention. "Okay, guys, Loomer's Gamimon aren't as practiced as you but there's some tough matches for you here. Slinx, you go after Porkine. Rampede, take the Sentree. And Sheenix, you go against Dragote. I don't know which pairings Loomer prefers, though, so watch your backs. I'm not sure what strategies will be best in real life so this is kind of an experiment. The match starts when the second one of us waves to show he's ready, just go and give it your best." Shade gave his wave to Loomer and the three of them tensed even more, watching the other master intently.

Loomer. What a dumb name, Howard snorted as he psyched himself up. Nowhere near as cool as Shade. I'll show 'em who's the best master... Wait. Get it straight. He took a deep breath and tried to calm his nerves, feeling more overwhelmed by his Slinx nature than ever before. «Remember, guys. We don't really want to do this, it's just those eggs' damned brainwashing getting to us. Don't get too deep. Remember it's just a stupid game we're stuck in.»

Kev nodded but Michael stamped a hoof and rumbled under his breath. «Still gotta win it, Slinx. Bite 'em good. I'll ram 'em hard.» Howard glanced at Michael askance and almost missed Loomer's wave.

Kev launched into the air with a crackle of flame, Michael launched across the field with the heavy thudding of hooves, and Howard faded silently into the shadows under a remaining patch of standing grass. Rampede's right. Gotta win. Those quills look impossible, gotta catch Porkine from just the right angle... He focused on the spine-covered boar. It seemed to be advancing to intercept Michael, which was even better; Loomer must not have sent it after him specifically. It'd reduce the chances of him spotting Howard shadowdashing around to line up an attack.

Michael was trying to circle widely around the Porkine, wanting a clear run-up to ram his head into the Sentree without a mound of spikes in his way. Howard decided to mirror the action, using a pair of shadowdashes to reach the shade of the big tree Loomer had started them all from. That put him behind the Sentree, which meant Porkine was now almost exactly between himself and Rampede. Damn, he doesn't look any more vulnerable from behind-

A sudden piercing shriek struck Howard like a physical blow, his own pained yowl sounding almost feeble in response, and with his concentration disrupted his shadowy camouflage dissipated. "Holy!" Loomer yelped and scrambled back a step from the big cat's sudden appearance next to him.

Ow, ow, ow... Damnit! Sentree! Howard shook his head, still seeing double for a moment from the focused blast of sound, and looked at the nearer Gamimon. The eyes on his side were fixed on him and a vertical slit had opened in the trunk on his side. He spotted me, sounded the alarm. Of course! Loomer sicced that one on- Howard yowled again, throwing himself into a frantic short-range shadowdash to dodge out of the way as thorny vine-like tentacles shot out of the slit at him. Sentree's sharp eyes followed his translucent form easily, though, and it hit him with another sonic blast midway. Howard had never come out of a dash while between shadows before and it left him sprawling disoriented on the grass.

Then Michael, his flank badly scratched by the Porkine's quills as he'd slipped past, slammed into the Sentree head-first. The tree-like creature let out a strange wheeze, bending with the blow and seeming to clutch the ground even harder with its roots to keep from toppling. Michael immediately spun in place and his massive tail swung round to slam the Sentree again. This time its roots pulled free from the soil and it toppled, disappearing in a flash of red light. «Yes! I am treeslayer!» Michael exulted.

Howard grinned weakly, staggering to his feet. Michael was breathing heavily from the charge and some of the quill wounds on his side looked nasty, though they weren't bleeding much. «Way to go Rampede. I'm not down much energy, just winded. How're you?»

«Doesn't hurt- Unh!» Michael was cut off by a flurry of hurled quills thudding into his chest and Howard reflexively darted into the shadows again. Porkine hadn't seemed like the quickest or most agile of Gamimon, but now Howard was taken aback by the determined look on his piggy face as he charged, squealing with rage. And also... fear?

It finally dawned on Howard that their opponents might be former humans just like them. He stepped out from the shadow, struggling against his combat urges. «Oh, geeze. He's not dead! Porkine, wait! We don't want to fight!»

The Porkine gave no indication he even heard Howard. Michael lowered his horns to meet the charge but the Porkine's short legs kept him even lower, sliding down under Michael's head. The Porkine jerked his head upward, slamming again into Michael's chest. Michael started to collapse onto him and for a moment Howard thought they were going to take each other out mutually. But the red light came and Michael vanished before his massive weight came to bear.

«Damn!» Howard grimaced. «You don't understand me, do you?» The Porkine snorted, turning to face Howard and pawing the ground with a forehoof. Howard flattened his ears and started warily circling, his mind racing on several different tracks at once. His face is the only spot not covered in quills but I don't want to attack him head-on and there's no shadows near him to leap out of. Why can't I communicate with him? How's Sheenix doing? A glance at the sky showed her still dogfighting with the Dragote; she looked faster and more agile but was mainly using that to keep out of the way rather than to attack. No help there.

The Porkine was still glaring, eyes locked with Howard's, quills quivering and hooves stamping but not actually charging yet. Howard stopped his pacing prowl and paused to meet Porkine's gaze. «You don't want to fight either, do you?» He growled under his breath. «What are we going to do?» The tableau held for a moment, Howard struggling to flatten his puffed-up spinal fur and retract his claws. The Porkine blinked, hesitating as it dawned on him what Howard was trying to get across. He stopped stamping and started lowering his own erect quills.

Howard glanced over at Loomer, who'd taken cover behind the big tree during the fight and was peering out at them with interest, and then turned to look across the field at Shade. What am I going to do, master? the thought came unbidden.

Shade seemed to realize that Howard had at least momentarily overcome his drive to do battle. "Quit stalling, Slinx!" He called out, "you're a Gamimon now! Don't let me down!"

Howard turned back to Porkine, teeth bared and certainty flooding through him. He's right, damnit. It's not personal. Gotta win this. Porkine's quills raised back up and he snorted, the pause in combat over as their Gamimon reflexes took over again. But how?

He suddenly realized he'd overlooked a key shadow. A tactic sprang fully-formed into Howard's mind and lunged away from Porkine even as the idea was still just registering consciously, diving into the shade of the tree to start his dash. Loomer let out a yelp of alarm but Howard was already twisting back around to face Porkine before his paws touched the dark earth.

Howard turned insubstantial, streaked out across the trampled sunlit grass, and resurfaced in the shadow beneath the squat body of Porkine himself. It was a tight fit but Howard's feline flexibility had him turned over on his back and raking Porkine's quill-free belly with his claws before his opponent even realized where he'd gone.

Porkine squealed and darted. Howard hung on, frantically attacking while being dragged over the rough ground. A number of possibilities flitted through Howard's mind on how Porkine could turn the tables - running over a fallen log or other obstruction, bending down to hit back with his tusks, even just belly-flopping his full weight down on Howard - but none of those dangers bothered him now. All of his will was focused on-

Victory! Yeah! Howard scrunched his eyes at the brilliant red flare, skidded to a halt and sprang back to his feet. «Got 'im! I beat Porkine!» He yowled triumphantly. «And still with three quarters energy! I'm da man! I'm da Slinx!» He looked over to Shade again and his surging pride was given momentary pause when he saw that his master had turned his attention to the Sheenix/Dragote fight as soon as the Porkine had vanished back into his Gamiegg.

It didn't deflate him much, but it was enough to let him think again. Wow. Winning feels... his blood was buzzing with elation, almost a literal high. No wonder Michael got so into it. I wish there were more. He looked up at Kev, who was still apparently focused on evading Dragote's attacks - the two of them didn't seem to have clashed much up there. Go on and take 'im down, Sheenix. You'll love it.

"Hey. Uh, Slinx." Howard blinked and turned to Loomer, who seemed to have recovered from the surprise of all that sudden fighting on his doorstep now that Howard had been dragged some distance away. "Nice kitty, and all. You understand me, right? Even though I'm not your master?"

Howard briefly considered not responding at all, not trusting his master's opponent. But he didn't know Shade any better than this guy, he reminded himself; it was pure chance that had one his master and the other not. He nodded cautiously.

"What did Larry mean by that? The 'you're a Gamimon now' thing. What were you before?"

Howard's ears flattened. He certainly didn't feel very human right then. But he knew perfectly well that he had been, and should be, and he definitely still wanted to be again. Buzzkill. Thank god. He lifted a forepaw and pointed at Loomer with a quiet 'mew.'

Loomer's expression hardened. "Human, you mean? You were someone who was at Xanadu in a Slinx costume?" That last bit wasn't quite right but it was close enough and Howard nodded again. "Well, damn. And you wouldn't be lying about that, there'd be no reason to say it if it wasn't true." He pulled out one of his Gamieggs and held it high. "Dragote, return!" There was a red flare in the sky as the Dragote vanished, accompanied by a yellow flare given off by Sheenix as she banked away in surprise at her opponent's sudden disappearance.

"What the hell?" Shade was just as surprised, but it quickly turned into anger and he came storming across the field. "You giving up? You can't give up, finish the fight!"

"What the hell indeed!" Loomer shot back. "You swore these Gamimon were all just magic animals that appeared in your bag out of nowhere! This one says he was a person!"

Shade was momentarily taken aback and glared at Howard. "Slinx, return." Howard fell back into his egg, curling up with a frustrated sigh; every time things started getting promising he wound up back in here again. And they hadn't finished the match, either - that was disappointing too. He listened as the argument continued between the two masters. "Look, I can explain. They're not really people, and they don't really get hurt. Why else do you think they do what we tell them?"

"You asshole! It's been all over the news, these people from Xanadu have mental problems! You were there too, are you cracked?"

"Hey, you liked the idea of playing Gamimon for real too!"

"Yeah, right. Let's play then. Dragote, activate! Grab Shade's egg bag!"

"Gyah! Slinx, activate! Sheenix, go-!"

For the first time Howard was caught off guard by a summons and it took him a moment to emerge. By the time he hit the ground, so had Shade; Dragote had bowled him over making a grab for the satchel. Shade still had it but the flap on the pouch had come open and Gamieggs were scattered on the ground. Dozens and dozens of them, the endless supply of empties were still spilling out. He spotted his own lying among them and tried to figure out what to do.

«Now's our chance, Slinx! Grab one!» Kev's piercing Sheenix cry jolted Howard into action and he pounced on his Gamiegg, seizing it in his jaws. Also for the first time, he didn't have any orders from a master lurking in the back of his mind. It actually felt strange not having any direction but his own. Howard bolted in the direction of the car, the only local landmark he could think of to aim for, but hesitated at the edge of the woods to look back at Shade.

Shade was too busy struggling in a tug-of-war with the Dragote over his bag to waste words on his rogue Gamimon. Loomer moved to join the fight himself and for a moment Howard wondered if perhaps he should stick around to help; Loomer was the first master he'd encountered who had actually seemed to care about communicating with him. Then Shade released his grip on the bag, grabbed one of the empty Gamieggs that had fallen out of it, and tossed it at Loomer. Loomer vanished in a red flare.

Crap. Gotta go. Howard shadowdashed, reaching the car in seconds. If past patterns held it would be some time before Loomer could be summoned out of his egg, whatever he might become, but as soon as Shade got ahold of Dragote's Gamiegg he'd have something to send after him. He flinched as a shape came diving down toward him from the sky, thinking for a moment that perhaps Dragote was on him already, but the glittering gold feathers quickly made it clear who it was. Kev landed in front of him, hopping awkwardly with a Gamiegg clutched in one foot.

«Sheenix! Am I glad to see you. Dragote's still active, do you know where his egg is?»

Kev shook her head. «They were scattered all over the grass. I grabbed the first one I saw that wasn't empty.» She dropped the egg on the ground in front of her and Howard peered at the symbol on the side with a sinking feeling.

«Crap! That's Rampede! So yours is still back there too?»

Kev nodded, and then a moment later her beak dropped open in dismay as the implication of that struck her. «He's gonna find me!»

Howard looked around for a hiding place. «Okay, stay calm. Lemme just hide my egg somewhere and then we go back for it. If we hurry-»

«No, no, no. Here!» Kev kicked Michael's Gamiegg over to Howard. «No time. Take him too, and run. I'm such a screwup, I got Michael into there and then got all of us captured by Shade. I'll go find mine. I can fight.»

Howard almost objected, but and her attitude was literally blazing with a determination that suggested talking her out of it would take too long anyway. Howard picked up Michael's egg, his mouth just large enough to hold his own as well. «Okay. I'll go for help, don't-»

Kev abruptly vanished in a red flare of light. Howard winced; Shade had found her egg and recalled her. Any moment now Sheenix would be back hunting for him. Time to go. Sorry, Kev, I can't afford to fight now. Howard shadowdashed in the direction of the road.

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The early afternoon sun was still near zenith, making shadows rare once Howard was away from the trees. His camouflage abilities weren't so hot under the circumstances either. He opted for sticking to the shrubs along the side of the road, staying out of sight as best he could from both flying observers and from cars passing by. Shade could be hunting too, and besides that Howard definitely didn't want to get roadkilled.

He spotted Dragote circling overhead a couple of times, his bat-winged and lizard-tailed form making a very distinctive silhouette, but each time Howard found shelter with enough shadow to hunker down in and hide until the Gamimon had passed and he could resume fleeing. Sheenix didn't reappear. Finally, after what must have been an hour since he'd last seen any sign of pursuit, Howard found an old truck abandoned off the side of the road and crawled underneath to rest.

Howard spat out the two Gamieggs, sighing in relief at finally getting those things out of his mouth, and regarded them thoughtfully. He could only vaguely sense Michael, imagining the form of a tiny Rampede curled up inside but not seeing it with his mind's eye like he could when he was inside too. «Bet you're still asleep in there from the beating Porkine gave you,» Howard murred quietly. «Don't worry, you'll recover just fine once you're recharged. I wonder if I could summon you myself then.» He frowned. That just seemed wrong somehow, Gamimon mastering other Gamimon. «Probably not. How would I say the magic words? I can't even summon myself out, after all...»

He trailed off as an unpleasant notion dawned on him. Between fighting Porkine and escaping from the others he'd burned through about half his energy. He still felt pretty good but he didn't even know where he was trying to go or what he was ultimately trying to do with his escape. If he ran out of energy out here he'd be sucked back into his Gamiegg. Who knew how long it would be until he was found again, let alone found by someone who knew how to summon him out of it?

Good god, I could spend years sleeping in that thing. He looked pensively at his Gamiegg. Maybe he'd survive that but he somehow doubted he'd come out of it even vaguely sane. Maybe now would be a good time to try destroying it, put it on the road to get run over or something. Even if that doesn't make me human again, I'd at least be a free Slinx... Howard trailed off again. Oddly enough it was his Slinx side that raised the most urgent objections to that notion. Who would my master be if my egg is gone? How would I recharge between battles?

He shook his head and tried to clear those thoughts. I don't need either of those things. I don't. But the worries still nagged at him and after a short while he grudgingly considered them again. What if I do? A Gamimon can never be placed back in the 'wild' stack again. That could mean I can never be free of this stupid egg, and that means if it's destroyed I might go with it. Howard sighed. No, I'm not at the point of risking suicide yet, on the slight chance that that theory's right.

But that meant he was still stuck with the risk of being sucked back into the egg if he ran out of energy. He'd been resting for a while now and he hadn't felt like he was recharging any. «Stupid game rules, why can't I just take a nap outside my egg? At least there isn't a time limit. I'll just have to husband my resources a bit.»

Howard decided that the first thing he had to do was get closer to civilization. He was on the road to Orlando, he'd spotted signs along the way that suggested he was only about ten miles out of town. Once he got there... Howard sighed. Not being able to talk was going to be a major handicap and looking like a strange wild animal wouldn't help much either. He needed to find someone he could trust and who was likely to pay attention when he tried explaining himself.

He could go back to Xanadu again. Howard had little information on what had happened with the people who'd been changed there after the point Kev had been captured by Shade, but up until then it had apparently been serving as a reasonably friendly hostel for transformed people who'd had nowhere else to go. Someone there could perhaps recognize him and give some help.

Howard nodded to himself, picking up the two Gamieggs again and crawling out from his hiding place. He stretched and looked at the sky, checking for hunters and estimating the time of day. Better get going. It'll probably be late by the time I get there. He padded off through the brush.

It turned out that late was good. By the time he got into suburbs the sun was low in the sky and the shadows it cast were handy. Howard was quite sure he'd shaken Shade's remaining Gamimon by then but now his stealth was aimed at the general citizenry of the city; getting shot would put him back in his egg without any chance to leave instructions for how to call him out again. But stealth came with a price, slowing him down and draining his energy even more. By the time he reached the convention center's greenspace he was running on empty and he dropped his shadow camouflage with relief.

«Won't be long now, Rampede.» He'd taken to mumbling comments to Michael as he went even though it wasn't clear whether he'd recharged enough to be awake in there; if nothing else it kept him focused. «Just gotta get inside now. Where are all the cops?» The place was tidier and less heavily guarded than when he'd last been here, though the half-full parking lot made it clear there was still a lot of activity in the building. «I wonder how long it's been since I was here.» Howard headed for the nearest door.

«Gotcha!» Kev's piercing cry gave Howard just enough warning to dodge as she swooped down out of the Sun, flames buffeting the pavement where he'd been standing moments earlier.

«Gah! Damnit, Sheenix!» Howard glanced around in search of cover while the golden bird regained altitude. The parking lot's tidiness was suddenly a major problem, an open expanse of pavement to cover before reaching the unbroken and unforgiving wall of the convention center itself.

«Sorry, Howard!» Kev called out while circling for another run. «You know how it is. Master Shade ordered me to do this, so I have to try. Don't let me win!»

Noted. Howard didn't have the time or energy to respond, sprinting for the building instead. He could get there just ahead of Kev's next attack, but he had no idea how he was going to get inside; it had taken him quite a bit of agility to paw the door open last time and it would leave him hopelessly vulnerable. He didn't have the energy to withstand even one solid hit. And now he didn't have any time, either. The solid glass doors were right in front of him, Kev screeching out of the sky directly behind on a collision course.

The Sheenix's shadow touched him a moment ahead of her talons. With equal parts desperation and inspiration Howard used it as the launching point for a short dash straight forward, straight into the doors... and through to the dark interior. He stumbled to a halt on the carpeted floor of the foyer and cringed at the tremendous cracking crash as Kev swooped into the door behind him.

Howard turned to survey the damage. Kev wasn't quite 'dead', lying in a stunned heap on the other side of the spiderwebbed pane, but she clearly wasn't much of a threat now - her flame crest was flickering low, almost extinguished. Howard padded back to the door, struggling to keep his Gamimon urge to crow about victory in check even as it buoyed him despite his virtually nonexistent energy. «Shadows pass through glass,» he murmured. «I'm sorry I had to fight so dirty, Sheen. I'll get help from a new master and try to free you from Shade too. We'll have a more even match then.»

Kev stirred, twitching a bit before unsteadily raising her head. «Hrr... 'm okay. H-haven't won a match yet,» she croaked. Howard blinked, a little confused by the obvious grin pulling at the corners of her beak. Then she let her head drop and vanished in a flare of red light, returning to her egg wherever Shade might be holding it.

Howard took a moment to think. The brief and victorious fight had left him feeling wired but shadowdashing through the door had sapped the last of his energy. He didn't have much time before he'd have to return to his egg too. The makeshift clinic, he suddenly remembered from his previous visit. Not far. Hope someone's still there. He turned and headed down the hall in search of the familiar room. He still didn't know what he'd do when he got there, he had so much to say and no good way to say it. And there'd certainly be no time to find someone in particular to trust as his new master. He'd just have to wing it and pick the first obvious candidate.

The room had more cots set up now, but fewer people - the huge dragon was gone from its corner, as were the potted flower-woman and her giant chicken companion. The same superhero was still there, but with a completely different set bandages and splints than before. One bandage was around his head and he appeared to be unconscious on his cot, a woman in a stereotypical nurse outfit tending to him. She looked up at Howard's entrance.

"Hi there, kitty, are you hurt?" She asked, seemingly unphased by the big cat's appearance. Howard assumed she must have seen a lot stranger around here. He gave a tired meow through the Gamieggs in his mouth, looking around in search of anything he could use to write with or on. "Can't speak? One moment, little fella..." The woman got up from beside the unconscious superhero's cot and took a large plank of plywood off a nearby table, setting it on the floor. "Here."

Howard padded over and managed a grin. The sheet of wood was covered with alphabet stickers, the letters laid out like a giant ouija board, and it had obviously seen much scuffing from hooves and claws in recent days. Brilliant. You'll do. He lifted a paw and tapped out "NEED POLICE HELP BUT LONG STORY NEED REST 1ST. U HOLD EGG & SAY SLINX ACTIVATE 2 WAK ME." Then he dropped the two Gamieggs on the board and pushed his in her direction.

She read out the words as he 'typed,' confirming that she was reading them right, then picked up his egg and gave him a puzzled but earnest smile. "Well, okay. I hold this and say 'slinx activate' to wake you back up. How long do you want to sleep? Should I call for a policeman to come in the meantime? I'm afraid I don't really understand..." Howard shook his head, too tired to come up with any answers to those questions. He must have looked it, too, since the nurse's smile turned even more sympathetic. "Okay, kitty, if it's not that urgent then go ahead and nap. But at least tell me your name first?"

Howard yawned and blearily pawed his name on the board. "Oh, of course," the nurse chuckled. "My name's Sheila. I'll try waking you in a few hours. Is that okay, Slinx?" Howard had no idea if that would be enough time for a minimal recharge but it couldn't hurt to try, so he nodded. Then he let himself succumb to the fatigue he'd been holding at bay since his victory versus Sheenix and dropped into the comfortable darkness of his Gamiegg.

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"...assuming you're in there and can hear me, of course. Wake up, Slinx. Um, activate."

Howard was still a bit woozy for a moment but the summons jolted him rapidly awake. He landed on the carpet and gave himself a little shake.

He was in what looked like a hotel room, Sheila sitting on the edge of the bed and still dressed in her impeccable white nurse's outfit. He glanced around in puzzlement and Sheila chuckled, a warm smile on her face. "I just had to sleep a little myself, still having lots of long nights in this place. Brought that egg thing with me for safekeeping, I assumed you were inside it, and I thought you might want to wake up in private too. Here, I've got another letter board." She put down what looked like a plastic serving tray with more alphabet stickers on it, smaller than the first but probably much more portable. Her expression turned a bit serious. "You said you needed police? I took the liberty of checking the hotel register, there aren't any gray cats named 'Slinx' on it..."

Howard shook his head and tapped a paw delicately on the tray, the letters slightly under the most convenient size and requiring more care to make the words clear. They seemed to be the lower-case partners of the stickers on the previous one. "Name Howard. Not guest here, kidnapped after changing, just got free."

"Goodness! No wonder you said you needed police, it's been two weeks now." She frowned. "But I hate to ask, are you sure your mental state is okay? You told me your name was Slinx before, and a lot of the people here get... disoriented, sometimes."

Howard winced, realizing he must have 'typed' the wrong answer earlier. Sheesh. Even spelling it out one letter at a time I still slip up. "I am a Slinx," he corrected himself. "Type of Gamimon. Complicated, confusing. But I remember clear."

"Ah, you're a Slinx named Howard. I should call you Howard, then?"

Howard nodded, grinning. At last a master who actually cared a little about who he really was! "We kidnap by master Shade," Howard tapped. Skipping prepositions made the typing faster but made him sound like a simpleton so he decided to take a little more care himself. "Rampede and I. He still has four other Gamimon, need to tell police and rescue them."

Sheila picked up Michael's Gamiegg. "Ah, Rampede would be your friend here I take it. I wondered about that."

"He's big!" Howard hurriedly typed in case Sheila tried saying the magic words. "Careful where you aim his egg when summoning." Michael could probably fit but would need to take care with moving around, there were even more smashables here than there had been in Kev's room.

Sheila held the Gamiegg gingerly, pointing it at the open area beyond the bed. "Right. So do I just say 'Rampede activate' for this- eep!" She dropped the egg and flinched back at the big red flare of light as Michael appeared, staggering slightly and giving a grunt of relief at being summoned but fortunately taking a moment to get his bearings before trying to move. "Goodness! I'm sorry, I was expecting another sort of kitty."

Michael turned carefully, hooves clomping heavily on the carpeting but managing to avoid hitting anything. «Slinx! Oh man, what happened? I lost to Porkine, and then next thing I know I wake up with my egg in your mouth and you're fighting Sheenix! I think. It was hard to make out from just the sound.» He peered at Sheila, cocking his horned head. «What happened to master Shade, why do we belong to her now?»

Howard quickly tapped out "Hang on a sec" for Sheila, giving a meow to draw her attention to the letter board. She nodded and waited while Howard proceeded to fill Michael in on the details of what had happened.

The Rampede's reaction caught Howard a bit off guard. «You mean we were winning against Loomer's bunch, he attacked master Shade, and you ran away? And Sheenix stole me away too?» Michael snorted and stamped a hoof, clearly upset. «We were winning!»

«Kev rescued you,» Howard snarled back. «And he stayed captive himself because of it, you know!»

"Um, are you okay, Rampede? Slinx?" Sheila was a bit unnerved by the bigger beast's agressive attitude.

Michael was immediately cowed. «Sorry, master Sheila.»

Howard took a moment longer to get his own hackles to stand down. Wow. Michael's really too far into this. "Rampede's name is Michael," Howard tapped out. "Don't worry, won't hurt anyone."

"O... kay," Sheila's smile returned. "I think I'll call for the police now, though. You should be telling them all the details, not just me."

Howard nodded and sat quietly while she dialed the phone and asked the front desk for a visit from an officer. Once that was done she informed him that someone would be by in a few minutes and that she'd help him give his story when he arrived.

Michael grumbled under his breath as he waited. «We're not going to level up if we don't-»

«Michael, Gamimon is just a stupid game!» Howard cut him off. He took a deep breath and calmed himself before continuing, having to overcome his own artificial Gamimon urges to make his point. «We're human. We're more than just training and battling for Gamimon masters. We escaped.»

Michael fell silent again, ears flicked back and gaze dropped. They waited awkwardly for the next few minutes.

The policeman who came to the door was remarkably unphased by the appearance of the two Gamimon, stepping in when Sheila invited him with only a curious glance at them. "I'm Officer Ryan. Haven't seen you around, you guys recent secondary transformees?"

Howard wasn't exactly sure what that meant but figured he'd be answering the question one way or the other in the course of his story. He got busy tapping it out on the tray with Sheila helpfully reading aloud as he went. Michael declined to add anything of his own - he had no forelimbs, his hooves were too big for the letter tray, and he refused to hold a pencil in his mouth. Fortunately Howard already knew most of his story and filled in for him.

Officer Ryan took copious notes. "Quite the story," he concluded after Howard did. "But I might as well believe it, all things considered. I'll call in to have this 'Shade' character checked out, his house searched for more of these egg things. Bearing in mind that he might be crazy and have an endless supply of empties... might want to draft a superhero on this one." He glanced over at the two Gamieggs still resting on Sheila's bed. "Normally I'd take those as evidence, but I guess that would be equivalent to taking you into custody, right?"

Howard nodded emphatically and tried not to bare his fangs at the thought. He didn't want to spend weeks or months stuck in a storage locker while all this got sorted out. The policeman nodded back. "Okay, then, I'll leave you guys with Sheila to find a place to stay. Make sure to register at the front desk." And with that he left.

The silence was even more awkward now that they didn't have anything in particular to wait for. "Well, now it that looks like the wheels of bureaucracy are turning for you, what do you want to do?" Sheila asked. "I was going to go down to the clinic again. Do you want me to call anyone for you first, or...?"

Howard looked to Michael. «You should have her call your parents. And Kev's parents.»

Michael gritted his teeth. «Damn it... this is where everything starts turning back into real life again, doesn't it. But I'm still Rampede!»

Howard sighed. «Yeah... I don't see how the hell I'm supposed to go back to anything like this either. But we can't just forget about it, right? What kind of a life is being a Gamimon?»

«Maybe better than the kind of life I had before...» Michael trailed off and Howard cocked his head. Perhaps that was a reason why Michael had given in so easily to what had been foisted on him. Though he felt badly for Michael if that was the case, Howard couldn't help but also feel a bit relieved; it might mean he wasn't so susceptible himself.

"Can you phone my parents for me and tell them about this" Howard tapped out, giving a number for them. They had surely found out about his disappearance and hoped they'd be more relieved that he'd turned up than horrified by what had happened to him.

Sheila nodded. "Sure. I've kind of practiced that sort of call." She reached for the phone and dialed.

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Sheila had told Howard and Michael to "do whatever he liked" while she went about her nursing duties and Howard had of course obeyed, spending the day sneaking around the hotel grounds to explore. Howard didn't mind Sheila's company but was still pleased to get away from his master for a while, just on the offchance that she might decide to give him other orders.

Michael stayed with her. Howard was kind of pleased with that too, it gave him time to think on his own while simultaneously ensuring that Sheila was guarded while carrying their eggs. The police had pieced together Shade's identity fairly quickly from what they'd told officer Ryan and had closed in on his apartment within hours, but he was gone when they'd got there along with anything Gamimon-related. He'd evidently realized that once Howard had defeated Kev his secret was soon to get out and he'd gone to ground. There was a warrant for his arrest and they could potentially dig him up at any time, but until then Howard couldn't help but worry about being stolen back.

It was an unsettling thing to ponder but Howard decided it was about time to wrestle with it. As a Gamimon, he had to be owned by someone. From what he was seeing of the people still rooming at the hotel he was far from the only person stuck in a bad condition, his wasn't even the worst. There was no indication that anyone was going to find a cure any time soon. Nobody had even really figured out what had happened yet.

His parents had been relieved to hear from him, of course, but they'd apparently read plenty about the events at Xanadu since he'd gone missing and knew more than he did about it. They'd gently but firmly decided they weren't up to dealing with his condition by themselves, though they'd be flying down to see him soon, and Howard had agreed that it'd be just too weird having them take possession of his Gamiegg. There was something Freudian about having one's own parents as one's Gamimon masters.

The same problem presented itself with every other person Howard could think of that he would trust to hold his Gamiegg - he knew them all too well. The concept of being owned by someone was somehow easier to take when the relationship was strictly impersonal, like it had been with his previous masters.

Howard wound up back in the old Anime dealer's room again, the piles of debris having been finally shoved to the sides to clear the floor but not removed yet even weeks later. He rummaged idly through it and found more packages of Gamimon cards, ripping one open and spreading them out. If only I hadn't brought that bag back to master Michael... Howard sighed. I'd be the only Gamimon in the world then. Who would I fight? He browsed through the deck and his eye was caught by a Slinx card.

He shook his head, clearing the confusing foreign thoughts welling up. No. I don't want to be a toy. And Kev, Michael, Loomer, the others should all be free too. He decided that he'd just have to ask Sheila to hang on to him for a few more days while the hunt went on and he worked this all out. She didn't want to be his master, which as far as he was concerned was a perfect reason for him to want to be her Slinx. Perhaps he could help Michael get his human self sorted out too. And Kev, if she didn't become hopelessly addicted to combat by the time Shade got caught.

Oh! Howard blinked, suddenly distracted from all the deep thought as something else caught his eye. He pounced on the pile of junk beside him, pawing through the clattery heap of plastic DVD jewel cases, and laughed out loud at what he uncovered - a feline sound that nonetheless conveyed the emotion quite adequately. Sol Bianca! The one I was looking for was here on one of these tables after all!

Howard gingerly picked it up with his teeth. Wow, after all that. I hope this thing was worth it. And I hope master Sheila's got a DVD player. I've got some humanizing to do. He shadowdashed off down the hall.

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