Finals are a pain in my rear, especially when I have two writing-intensive classes. But luckily the semester ends for me on the 14th. So I'm sorry this wait was longer than usual, but it should hopefully speed up soon.


Chapter 23: To the Depths of Darkness

The moon climbed high over the dead oak trees. The sounds of the midnight bayou had returned; crickets, cicadas, and frogs chirped and croaked out in the forest. The river was as pitch black as the clouded sky up above, save only for the reflections of the fireflies flittering above the surface and dancing through the reeds. Their natural lights lit up the only signs of intelligent life in the area: an old wooden dock, falling apart, that connected the shore to a half-sunken steam riverboat. Unlike the rest of the area, the boat was only mostly abandoned.

Riku sat on the edge of the upended deck, shadows and lights dancing across his tanned face as the fireflies darted in and out of the plants. There were two round lights reflected in the water, however, that weren't moving with the others. Riku's eyes narrowed down at his reflection, the shadows dancing across his silver hair. The black water began to bubble as his eyes narrowed and he clenched his jaw tight. The spot where Ansem's face had looked up at Riku exploded in a burst of darkness, sending river water raining down on the deck. Riku leaned his head back and shut his golden eyes as the water pelted him for a few seconds.

Riku let out a low groan and fell backwards, landing on the wood of the deck with his arms spread out to his sides. Out of the corner of his eye he could see the translucent green form of the lonesome ghost watching him from behind one of the wooden pillars holding up the boat's second floor, but the ghost didn't make a move toward Riku and Riku did nothing to acknowledge his presence.

Ansem hadn't said anything since his outburst at Vanitas, which was nearly an hour ago now. Riku wasn't sure if he was relieved or disturbed by that. He had pressed the question, Who are you?, to Ansem several times in the first fifteen or twenty minutes of that hour, but when Ansem decided he was going to brood Riku's mood had soured even more and he found himself brooding as well, instead of looking for Oswald or Vanitas.

Riku sat up and moved over to the edge of the deck again, leaning over the side. The water had mostly calmed from Riku's attack, though it still rippled slightly. Seeing Ansem there, dressed in his clothes, his own clothes, angered Riku more than anything else that had happened to him since everything began. With the black coat he could at least pretend that he was still the white-haired, blue-eyed teen underneath that hood, but there was no denying who he was now. Riku felt darkness swirl around his clenched fists and he almost, almost, opened a corridor and left Wasteland behind. He needed a new coat, quickly.

But his exit was cut short.

"Boo!"

Soul Eater was in Riku's hands immediately. He spun on his heel and slashed at the person behind him, only to find the purple and red sword cutting through air.

"Eesh, watch where you swing that thing!" the lonesome ghost said, backing out of Riku's reach. He hovered in the air between two of the wooden pillars. "You could really hurt someone with that!"

Riku frowned and his hands fell to his side, but Soul Eater did not vanish. "What do you want?"

"Just trying to cheer you up with a good scare," the ghost said with something of a smile. "If negativity really causes those monsters to pop up, then is it a good idea to mope around?"

Riku paused. Negativity causes them? "What are you talking about?"

The ghost raised an eyebrow and his expression became one of confusion. "What do you mean what am I talking about? You heard what that masked guy called them: fledgling emotions." He pulled a stage mask with the face of a crying man painted on it out of nowhere and held it over his face. "You saw me depressed from how lonely I was, and you saw that monster pop up. It was easy to figure out once I heard that guy talk."

Riku's frown increased and his brow furrowed. What the ghost was saying was true; Vanitas had called the strange not-Heartless creatures 'fledgling emotions', and Riku had seen the ghost's loneliness manifest itself physically into one of the monsters—in fact, the monsters he had fought in the bayou all had depressed expressions on their faces, mainly in their glowing red eyes.

"Of course," he muttered, tightening his fists until his knuckles went white. "How could I have been so stupid?"

Oswald said that Wasteland was a world for those unwelcome in their own homes, for whatever reason. Vanitas – and, Riku realized, he himself – had referred to this place as a 'world of forgottens and cast-asides'. It made sense, then, that negativity would run rampant in a place like this, as its inhabitants moped and brooded about the state they were in. If the monsters Vanitas commanded were truly powered by negative emotions, then Riku couldn't imagine a better world than this.

"I have to tell Oswald." But where was he? Well…he had gone through the projector screen before it was compromised, so he must have made it to their goal. The picture of the screen had been a mansion, hadn't it?

"Hey," Riku said to the ghost. "Do you know of any mansions around here?"

The ghost seemed to grow slightly somber as the words left Riku's mouth. "I do," he said. "Lonesome Manor. It was my home, me and my fellow ghosts, but the monsters drove us out and scattered us across the bayou."

"Can you tell me where it is?"

"It's just on the other side of Bog Easy, the abandoned town. The people there were driven out by the monsters before they got us at Lonesome Manor." He pointed to the shore. "There's a break in the trees straight out from the dock. You see it? Follow the path there and you'll reach Bog Easy no problem."

Seemed simple enough. Riku didn't think he'd be able to miss a town, abandoned or not.

"Got it. Thanks." Riku waved goodbye to the ghost and then jumped over the edge of the deck, planting his sneakers on the old, waterlogged dock. Its brown boards creaked under every step as he made his way to shore. And the shore wasn't much better with the muddy ground, more liquid than solid, squishing underneath him. As the ghost had pointed out, there was a gap in the trees here, and if Riku looked closely he could see an old path underneath the twigs and dead leaves. It hadn't been used in quite some time, but it was there. Bog Easy had to be at the other end.

Riku's walk through the woods was uneventful compared to his trip through the bayou before he found the boat. As he left the water behind the amount of fireflies significantly lessened, dropping Riku into a near total darkness. But there was just enough light to see the occasional critter skitter by through the trees, or jump from branch to branch overhead. Despite everything he had been through, Riku had to admit that even he felt a little jittery in such a creepy location as this. It seemed that primal fears, like a fear of the unknown, never went a way.

But the unknown itself did go away eventually, at least in its current form. The trees came to an end and the dirt path slowly came to be replaced by cobblestone streets. So, this was Bog Easy.

It looked abandoned, just like the lonesome ghost said. The buildings were mostly made of wood, with white pillars and arches appearing as a recurring theme in the architecture. The people had apparently left in a hurry—several buildings still had lights on. As for other colors, the variety reminded him a lot of Mean Street though they weren't quite as bright. Overall it had a more subdued feeling about it than Mean Street did, fitting considering the black trees and dark sky surrounding the town.

Of course, Riku wasn't sure where to go from there to reach Lonesome Manor. A chill wind blew through the town, tossing abandoned papers around the cobblestone street and throwing Riku's long hair into chaos. Out of habit he reached behind him to pull up his hood, but of course his fingers only grasped at empty air. Groaning under his breath, Riku rubbed his exposed arms to warm up and continued on.

Pat, pat, pat, pat...

Riku stopped. Were those footsteps? But Bog Easy should have been abandoned. A shadow cast by one of the still-lit buildings passed by Riku, its owner in one of the back streets nearby. It was hard to tell with the way the shadow was skewed by the position of the light source, but Riku was pretty sure the figure who had passed by was considerably shorter than him; about the size of one of the small, twitching variety of Vanitas's monsters, he'd say.

Well wasn't that just perfect?

Riku moved into action immediately, jumping up and grabbing one of the white balconies on a nearby building. He pulled himself up with little hassle, though he did, unfortunately, end up kicking a potted plant off the edge. It crashed onto the street and broke apart with a seemingly thunderous crack, and suddenly all the sounds of the animals in the area went quiet. Riku stared at the mess of dirt and pottery down below with held breath.

Pat, pat, pat, pat, pat.

His target was moving much more quickly now; so, it had heard the sound as well, and now knew there was someone else in the area. Riku would have to work fast before he lost his chance. If this creature escaped it could make its way somewhere inhabited.

From the balcony, Riku pulled himself up onto the slanted roof of the building he had begun to climb. His feet stood uneven on the loose shingles, but with levitation falling wasn't much of a concern for Riku. Breathing in deeply through his nostrils, Riku shut his eyes and searched for the scent of darkness—for his target.

He didn't smell it.

"What?" Riku muttered the question to himself, glancing around. He definitely wasn't imagining hearing those footsteps or seeing that shadow, but he didn't catch the scent of darkness coming from anywhere in the area—well, not counting himself, anyway. So if that wasn't one of the monsters, then what was it?

…Could someone still be living here? But then they'd be easy pickings if the monsters returned.

"Oh, hell."

Riku broke into a run, his shoes kicking off the already loose roof shingles as he moved. It didn't matter. He had to find the one who had been walking around Bog Easy, whether it was a person or a monster—either way could potentially end badly.

With a powerful leap, Riku soared over the back street before him and landed on the next building. Its old foundations creaked slightly beneath him, but they didn't give way. It was stable enough to support him as he continued to run, his feet still uneven on the slanted plane. A clatter of metal falling over resounded from his right, so Riku turned on a dime and jumped across another street—a wider one this time. He didn't land as gracefully as the last, though, as he misjudged the distance and fell short of the next roof.

Levitation could have saved him, but before Riku could call on any magic his hands reached out instinctively and gripped the blue handrail of a staircase spiraling up the wall. Pulling himself up as with the balcony earlier, Riku vaulted over the rail and landed on the stairs. From there he jumped onto a nearby windowsill and smashed through the glass. The house was small, but that didn't matter. Riku ran across the thick carpet and broke through the window on the other side, flying over an alley and landing on the roof of a smaller building.

The clattering of metal echoed across Bog Easy once more, accompanied this time by the rapid footsteps. As Riku made his way across this latest rooftop, the crash of breaking pottery came from the direction of his target. Whoever or whatever he was chasing knew they were being followed and were getting reckless.

The sound of running feet led Riku into a small half-circle formed by several buildings at the end of a back street. The figure, shrouded in darkness from the buildings' shadows, came to a stop. He was trapped. Riku jumped down from his perch and landed on a small balcony where decorative vines hung. Riku had a good view of the target now, though of course he was out in the open so the target could see him plain as day.

Riku's jaw dropped. "Oswald?!"

A stream of paint thinner slammed into Riku. It knocked him off balance, though since he was not a part of Wasteland it didn't dissolve him, thankfully. Still, the splash from the impact landed on the balcony and dissolved his foothold, dropping him down onto the cobblestone next to – surprisingly enough – Oswald.

"How do you know my name?" Oswald asked, holding his hand out. Blue paint swirled around his arm and form into a mallet; cartoony, but Riku had no doubt it would be dangerous.

"What are you talking about? Oswald, it's me!" Riku stood up and wiped splatters of thinner from his face. "Don't you recognize- oh." Right. Oswald had only seen him with his coat before; he didn't know his face.

Oswald, for his part, caught on quickly enough. The paint stopped forming into his weapon and fell lifelessly to the ground.

"That voice… Riku, is that you?"

Riku smiled, surprisingly relieved. It made him feel a lot better to be called Riku when looking right at the face of Ansem, even if Oswald didn't know any better.

"Yeah."

"What happened to your coat?" Oswald asked with a raised eyebrow. "You sure didn't seem in a hurry to take it off when we met."

"It's a long story," Riku said while brushing away strands of hair that had gotten in his face in his fall. He found he did that a lot. Maybe he should look into getting it cut. "But Oswald, I thought you were going to the mansion? Why are you in Bog Easy?"

Oswald grinned and puffed his chest out proudly. "Lonesome Manor is taken care of. While you were goofing off in town I cleared out all the monsters inside it!"

Riku was impressed and he wasn't able to hide that. Still, though, the monsters could easily come back if just one requirement was filled. "Was there anybody else there?"

"Hm?" Oswald asked, only slightly lessening his prideful stance.

"Was there anybody else there?" Riku repeated.

Oswald frowned. "Uh…? No, there wasn't. Why?"

Riku crossed his arms. "When we got separated, I found my way to a depressed and lonely ghost. Darkness was surrounding him, and it created one of those monsters."

Oswald started, surprised. "The lonesome ghosts are behind it?!"

"No!" Riku called, holding his hands out to calm Oswald. "That's not it. Listen. The monster had a depressed expression on its face, matching the ghosts. And then…" Riku glared down at the floor, his encounter with Vanitas running through his mind…especially the parts concerning Ansem.

"I met someone—well, met them again. We've seen each other once before." Riku shook his head and kneeled down to eye level with Oswald. "His name is Vanitas, and he seems to be the one behind them. But more importantly, they're born out of negativity. Depression, doubt, despair, anger—it looks like they're what create the monsters. Based on what Vanitas said, anyway. Which admittedly wasn't much."

Oswald had grown more and more concerned as Riku spoke. He crossed his arms and glared down at the ground, tapping one foot against the cobblestones as his face creased in thought.

"Wasteland," he began slowly, "is full of that stuff and more."

"Right, that's what I figured too."

Oswald shook his head with his gaze still locked on the floor. "We've gotten a lot better in these last six months, I think. The Blot's gone, the paint's back, everything's restored… But old wounds don't just go away. They're always there to fester up when we don't want them." Oswald sounded surprisingly bitter for that last bit, and Riku felt a familiar pang in his heart. But he couldn't tell; was he the one experiencing that bitterness, or was Ansem?

Oswald spoke up again with a shrug. "Anyway, like I said, Lonesome Manor is clear. And Bog Easy looks pretty empty to me. Let's say we head back to Mean Street for now. We can work out a plan for this Vanitas guy there. Maybe Gus can help."

x-x-x

One of the screens in Mean Street's theater rippled. And Oswald jumped out, landing gracefully on the podium in the middle of the room. Riku followed shortly after, pulling himself through and landing with a graceful roll on the polished wood floor. As he climbed up to his feet, Riku paused. Something seemed off about their surroundings.

"Where's Gus?" Oswald wondered, looking around.

Riku frowned. That wasn't what he had noticed, but it was also concerning. "I'm not sure," he said. "But Oswald..." Riku finally realized what had been bothering him. He raised a pointing finger across the room to the far wall, where another projector screen stood. "Look."

"What are you talking abou- Oh."

It would perhaps be more accurate to say Riku was pointing at the spot where a projector screen once stood. The one Riku had been pointing at – in fact, all of them except for the one for Lonesome Manor – had been torn to shreds. Belatedly, Riku recalled the attack by those blue creatures while they had been traveling to Lonesome Manor. Had they destroyed the others at that same time?

"We need to find Gus." Oswald was already moving toward the door, paint swirling in his hand and forming into a weapon. "We need to make sure nobody is hurt."

"I'm right behind you," Riku said as he called out Soul Eater.

As soon as they passed through the red curtains over the doors, Riku and Oswald found themselves in the middle of chaos. Gremlins of all colors flew around in the night, wielding wrenches and stun guns as they fought off more of the monsters. The twitching ones flew across Mean Street like lightning bolts, while the Soldier-sized ones swung their razor-sharp claws and leaped from victim to victim. Oswald jumped into action immediately, his paint-forged weapon – which Riku couldn't help but noticed somewhat resembled a Keyblade – coursing with electricity.

Riku charged at the nearest enemy, one of the clawed ones, and slammed into it hard with his shoulder. Before it could recover he brought Soul Eater down and sliced it through he neck, cutting its head clean off. As the body began to get consumed by dark flames and fade away, Riku tossed it into one of the smaller monsters that was shooting toward him. An electrical surge followed, shocking the small monster and several of its companions. Riku glanced up to the source of the shock: a gremlin wielding a remote similar to the one he had seen Oswald using once or twice before.

"Thanks for the save!" Riku called out to the gremlin.

The gremlin saluted. "Gus is up north a bit, and one of my companions is telling Oswald now. We'll clear the way for you, just get to him! It's important!"

"Don't have to tell me twice."

Riku sent a wave of Dark Firaga into the street, lighting up the night for a few moments. The blue flames crashed into a group of monsters assaulting a trio of gremlins and sent them flying. Riku followed up by leaping into the air and sending a series of purple magic blasts their way, piercing the creatures with darkness. As he landed he brought Soul Eater down and through the remaining one's back.

A clawed monster jumped out of the shadows and raked its blades across Riku's back, tearing at his best and tracing thin red lines down his now exposed skin that burned with wisps of purple flame. Growling, Riku spun on his heel and struck out. The monster blocked his sword with one clawed hand and swiped at Riku again with the other. Riku jumped back just in time and all it managed to cut was some of his hair.

A black and blue figure suddenly fell from the sky. Oswald brought his sword down and sliced the monster cleanly in two, electricity coursing through the blade and the monster's two halves.

"Behind you, Riku!"

Riku turned around immediately and through up a barrier just in time to block one of the large monsters' punches. Riku's face hardened and he waved his hand, shattering the barrier and knocking the monster back several feet—far enough for him to cast Dark Firaga. The monster's body became a burning effigy and it stood in place in a silent scream. Two of its companions answered and jumped down from the buildings—more of the small, jittering ones. But before they could strike Riku and Oswald a machine appeared from further up the street, shaped like a cannon but with concentric rings along the barrel and a pointed tip, like some kind of cartoon blaster. The device fired a huge burst of electricity, vaporizing the monsters.

"Gus!" Oswald called out to the red-clad gremlin. Gus stood triumphantly atop the electric weapon, but he didn't stay there for long. Swooping down, he moved to hover in front of Oswald and Riku.

"We've got things covered here. The two of you need to go to Walt's statue, that's where they're all coming from!"

"I gotcha," Oswald said, raising his electric sword up. "Hit 'em at the source!" He took off to the north, but Riku lingered behind. The statue—the same statue with the Keyhole. And the monsters were coming from there? So was Vanitas there?

"Riku!"

Riku glanced up at the impatient – and rightfully so – rabbit. "Sorry. Let's move!"

A few more groups of enemies did try to attack Riku and Oswald, but the gremlins intervened in a timely manner and the two of them never had to break their momentum. The statue came into view, on full display before the castle in the distance. And standing in front of the polished metal was indeed that masked figure in black, his weapon drawn and pointed at the statue's pedestal.

"Vanitas!" Riku shouted. What was he doing?

"Do you and your friends make a habit of arriving at the worst possible times?" Vanitas asked, lowering his weapon and turning around. Riku's eyes widened. Vanitas's weapon—it was a Keyblade! But how—why?!

"What are you doing with that?" Riku asked, shifting into his combat stance. "The Keyhole is locked."

Vanitas let out a dark chuckle and waved his Keyblade in the air nonchalantly. "As if I'm going to tell you." He paused for a moment and his Keyblade fell to his side. "So, Riku, are you afraid?"

"What?" Riku spat, narrowing his eyes.

Vanitas shrugged. "Ansem, taking control; ring any bells? Are you afraid? Or angry, perhaps?"

Riku's limbs felt heavier and he silently directed his glare from Vanitas to the ground. Yes, he was afraid and angry. He was afraid of losing himself and all he ever cared about. He was angry that he had put himself in this situation during that fight with Axel so many months ago. But he wasn't afraid of Ansem, no.

He was afraid of who Ansem was.

Vanitas…

Riku's narrow eyes snapped wide open. Ansem had been so quiet, but now he was beginning to speak up again—because they were in Vanitas's presence, no doubt.

"Are you full of hate?"

Riku's hand flew to his chest and clenched tightly around the fabric of his vest. A white-hot rage was bubbling up in his heart, growing stronger with every word Vanitas spoke. But it wasn't his rage. His face set into a snarl against and his teeth began to grind, his body quivering with anger.

Vanitas…!

"Who are you, really?" Oswald asked, pointing his pseudo-Keyblade forward. "Riku says you're behind the monsters."

"Guilty as charged," Vanitas said, no doubt with a smirk beneath his mask. "But I just gave them a push. They're born out of negativity—as I'm sure you've figured out. I barely even had to work to get things done here, there's so much of it to go around! It was an all-you-can-eat buffet; so thanks for letting them dig in!" Vanitas let out brief, insane laughter, and Riku saw red.

"Xemnas was right about one thing," Vanitas said, suddenly much calmer. "Anger and hate are supreme."

"Stop talking and fight me, Vanitas!" Riku suddenly shouted. Immediately his hands flew up to his mouth and his eyes grew wide. He wasn't the one who said that. Vanitas and Oswald both turned their attention to Riku, the latter with surprise and the former with a smug aura.

Ansem, what are you doing?!

Riku lurched forward, clutching his head as sweat began to form on his brow. His whole body was shaking and he clenched his eyes tight. There was a horrible, searing pain emanating from his heart, like his very being was alight with Dark Firaga, and when Riku opened his eyes again he no longer stood in Wasteland.

Or rather, he did stand in Wasteland – he still saw Oswald, still saw Vanitas, and still saw the statue – but he was in this new location as well, floating in an endless abyss above a swirling mass of blue and black. His body in Wasteland moved without his command and charged at Vanitas with a horrible shout, swinging Soul Eater in a blind fury. And then Riku understood; he had lost control of his body and this swirling void he had been exiled to was his heart, which meant only one thing.

This was it. His worst fear had become a reality.

Ansem had won.