A Darker Road: Chapter Sixteen
Xemnas was not impressed with the latest development. Lexaeus was dead. Roxas stood next to his shadow, the youngest Nobody looking uneasy but far from nervous. The boy certainly had a rebellious streak and it was not something Xemnas wanted in the Organization's Keyblade wielder. He leaned forward in his seat, his fingers interlaced. In a calm and measured voice that hid his anger, Xemnas said, "Tell me what happened."
The shadow was unapologetic as he spoke aloud rather than into Roxas' mind. "Our connection to Sora is obviously strong. He was overwhelmed by magic, and so were we."
"I lost one of my best men to get you two out of there. You need to start showing me that my losses are worthwhile."
The shadow's smirk was in his voice. "The seed has been planted, as we planned. Sora will fall."
"I do not want to lose another skilled member because of you. Our deal didn't cover losses of that nature."
"It doesn't need to," the shadow replied. "We'll all get what we want."
Xemnas fixed the shadow with an icy stare. "We had better."
"Patience Xemnas," the shadow advised in a mockingly stern tone. "Don't lose your head so late in the game."
Roxas stood straighter and Xemnas noted the dangerous glint in his eyes. The boy lacked respect. Clearly he was drawing off his shadow's cocky nature. "Where do we go next?" Roxas asked. "After Sora? We know where he's going. The Land of the Dragons. We can..."
"No. Go to Naminé. She needs more information about Sora's friends." Xemnas looked at the shadow. "You can access the information?"
The shadow nodded. "Like I said, the seed was planted. It'll help us in more ways than one."
"Then go to Castle Oblivion and ensure the two of you produce results that won't result in further losses."
The pair left and a moment later, a slim figure entered the main meeting chamber. It was Zexion. "My mission to the Land of Dragons was successful."
Xemnas nodded. "Good. The Heartless will surely be drawn there and Sora is already in place."
"It was a simple and subtle plan that yielded excellent results," Zexion replied. "Where would you like me to go next?"
"Stay here for now. Your next move isn't to be made yet."
Zexion bowed and left. Xemnas leaned back in his chair, reviewing the next stage of his strategy. Lexaeus' loss was damaging but it didn't signal the end. The Organization was too old to flounder after one troublesome obstacle. It would take more than a single death to bring a premature end to Xemnas' plans.
Kairi was, to put it mildly, fuming. She had tried to let it go, tried to accept that she was needed at Disney Castle and would be able to make difference if there was another attack, but the simple fact was she wanted to be with Sora. She knew no one was trying to protect her, despite the fact her arm was still healing, but she didn't want to be left behind, not again.
Lost in angry thought, Kairi had paced all the way to the room she shared with Yuna, the younger girl sitting on her bed and clutching a home-made plushie she and Sora had somehow found the time to make in the In-between Universe. Yuna was unusually still, the slump of her shoulders telling Kairi something was wrong.
"Am I weak?"
The question was completely unexpected and Kairi, somewhat adrift in her own thoughts, floundered for a response.
"I'm older than this really. I remember it, sorta. I was big again when we went through that door in the basement. I have a power that I can't use away from my world but still..." She turned to Kairi, her eyes swimming with tears as she placed a hand on her chest. "Isn't this weakness?"
Kairi snapped out of her shock. "No," she said, her voice solid and determined. "I don't know what you were like before but how you are now is how we need you. Your White Magic is so powerful. I mean, you can use Holy, right? I remember reading books about that back home on Destiny Islands. It takes so much power and..."
"Power I still have when I'm older! Why am I like this?" Yuna clenched her fists. "Why am I weak?"
"Weak?" Kairi spluttered. Before she could stop herself, she grabbed Yuna by the shoulders and shook the girl hard. "Don't think that! Don't you ever think that! You may be little but you're stronger than most people two times your size!"
"But I'm not strong enough. I shouldn't have given up and stayed in this form, not when I'm needed. I'm just running from my responsibilities."
"No you're not!" Kairi wouldn't let Yuna finish the thought. "If you were doing that, you wouldn't feel the way you do now. Everyone doubts themselves sometimes but you need to believe in yourself. You're amazing, strong, powerful and..." The idea was like an explosion in her mind and Kairi's breath caught sharply. "And d'you know what we're gonna do?"
Kairi's grin was devilish. "We're gonna follow Sora."
Yuna's eyes went wide. "Should we really?"
The sensible part of Kairi, the part of her that hadn't forgotten the broken arm and her general tiredness, immediately answered 'no, not at all! We should stay right here!'. However, Kairi's rebellious side was definitely in charge. "We're going. One way or another, I'll prove to you how strong you are." She grabbed Yuna's hand and pulled her to her feet. "Come on, if Sora can steal a ship, so can we!"
Yuna laughed softly. "I guess I kinda like that idea."
"Why should Sora have all the fun, right?"
Kair located Chip and Dale and, with Yuna's help, convinced them she needed their help to pilot a ship. "I just need you guys to tell me how," she said. "I don't want to crash land anywhere. Cid would get mad at me if I wrecked one of his ships."
Yuna poked her side. "And we need to know where Sora's going."
"Oh, that's easy!" Dale piped up. "He's headed to..."
But Chip silenced him. "I dunno if this is a good idea."
"Please," Kairi insisted. "You know how much trouble Sora finds. He'll need all the help he can get!"
"Well, when you put it like that," Chip said thoughtfully, "I guess maybe we can help..."
"We'll do it!" Dale said, grinning and bouncing excitedly. "And we've got just the Gummi Ship – newly built and in need of a test flight! Cid wants the data ready for when he gets back so let's take it for a spin."
"Awesome!" Kairi grinned, looking at Yuna who smiled in response. "See, we can run around the worlds too!"
Yuna was silent for a beat before she took a deep breath and gave Kairi a determined look. "Of course!"
Clearly she'd spent too much time with Yuffie...
"So," Kairi turned back to Dale. "Where're we going?"
"The Land of Dragons," Dale said. He and Chip raced in front of Kairi and Yuna, leading the girls to a sleek black Gummi Ship. "Sounds exciting, dontcha think?"
"Definitely!" Kairi grinned. She looked at Yuna and the girl nodded. Kairi was pleased. One way or another, she'd make Yuna remember exactly how strong she was.
"And this is our new ship!" Chip declared triumphantly. "This is the Tantalus. Zidane named her. He won a poker game against Cid so we let him name the ship." The ramp descended and the group hurried aboard. "Come with us Kairi and we'll teach you how to pilot her!"
The flight felt like only a moment had passed, as if Sora had blinked and gone from being at Disney Castle to arriving at this new world. He had actually slept for several hours but, if he was honest, he didn't feel all that rested. Something felt off somehow, as if a few more minutes' sleep would give him all the energy he needed for whatever was to come.
Zidane looked at him. "You look like you could use some coffee."
Sora stretched and yawned. "Why can't I ever get enough sleep?"
"Because life is a cruel, cruel mistress and we are destined to be sleepy zombies for the better part of every morning," Zidane chuckled. "You sure you're ready for this?"
"Sure. I can't wait to see another new world," Sora said with a bright smile. "What's it called?"
"The Land of Dragons," Tifa answered. "We're going to be meeting Terra here. Her team surveyed a number of worlds and this one seemed to be in trouble. There's been some kind of attack here and she said we might want to investigate."
As they exited the ship, Zidane threw his arms around Sora and Tifa. "Ah, the three of us together again at last. It's just like old times! I'm awash with nostalgia!"
"Nostalgia?" Sora replied. "You make it sound like the last time the three of us spent time together was years ago."
"Feels like it sometimes," Tifa replied. "There's so much going on now, so many people to keep track of."
"Aaaah, and we all know the one you're tracking best," Zidane replied, waggling his eyebrows. "Huh Sora?" He nudged the younger boy in the side. "Don't we?"
Sora blinked. "D-do we?"
Zidane sighed. "Clearly I still have a lot of work to do with you. Remind me to give you a few lessons in 'Adult Life' when we get back to the ship okay?"
Memories of a certain shower incident washed over Sora and he blushed bright red. "N-no thanks. I'm fine."
Tifa gave Zidane a shove but before anyone could say anything else, the odour in the air drove the words out of their minds. The air was thick with a smell known only in war. Blood had been spilt but that wasn't all. Something not too far away was burning. Around them there was only thick forest but the blue sky above was marred by drifting smoke. The Keyblade appeared in Sora's hand. "There's been a battle," he said grimly.
Sora ran forward, Zidane and Tifa chasing close behind. The air grew increasingly unbearable, telling Sora he was closing in on the source of the smoke. Within a mere minute he had broken out into what remained of a devastated village. Not a single building remained unscathed. The fires were dying down but the destruction was already complete. Blood soaked into the ground and the stench was indescribable, gut-wrenching and evil. Sora fought the urge to vomit, his free hand covering his mouth and nose. He didn't need to see the bodies to know that there were many dead people here, and not one of them had died well. Not even the most optimistic person would be able to delude themselves into thinking the villagers had escaped with their lives. Stomach still rebellious, Sora moved to walk into the village but Zidane's hand fell on his shoulder, pulling him backwards.
Tifa stepped in front of Sora, blocking his view. She looked over her shoulder with sad eyes. "Go back to the ship and wait for us there." Her tone was gentle but firm. "We'll investigate this place."
Swallowing back the bile, Sora protested. "It's okay Tifa, I just need a minute and then I can..."
"Just this one time Sora, let yourself be a child. Leave this to us and don't look around."
"But I have to help. It's my..."
"Let duty slide," Zidane said, completely serious. "Leave it to me and Tifa. Go back into the forest and wait for us, okay?"
Sora backed up a few steps, struggling to understand why they wouldn't let him into the village. He had seen horror before. How was this different? He knew he could handle it, knew he had to deal with things like this if he wanted to be a worthy Keyblade Master. A spark of anger flared in his heart and he winced at the gnawing ache that stirred into life.
"No," he said, ignoring the childish petulance in his own voice. He started walking forward, pushing past Zidane and Tifa. He ran into the village before they could stop him. "You don't need to protect me. I can..."
The words... no, his voice died when his eyes fell on the body of a child. He couldn't tell if it was a boy or girl, the skin was so badly damaged and the face so disfigured. He stumbled back, shock engulfing him. He was wrong. He had been so wrong. He'd never seen anything like this before, never seen a body with it mouth forever open in a silent scream... Agony. That child had died in agony. He closed his eyes but the body was there. He would carry it through his worst nightmares... With a soft cry, Sora opened his eyes, only for them to fall on another body. He turned again. More. Everywhere. He couldn't help it. He fell to his knees and threw up, only to find that he was kneeling in the blood of the dead. The bodies were everywhere... He kept seeing them even when he didn't mean to look. What was this world? How could something like this happen? Who could kill anyone so brutally? There were children...
"Stop Sora. You don't need to prove yourself by seeing this." Tifa pulled him close, hiding his eyes from the bodies surrounding him. "It's just a nightmare." By the time he noticed the glow around her wrist, it was already too late. "Sleep."
Zidane caught Sora as he slumped backwards, utterly senseless. "Wasn't that a little extreme?"
"No," Tifa replied, her eyes once again on the village. "He's already seen too much, and it'll only be worse further in." She reached out and brushed away the tears slipping down Sora's cheeks. "I want to protect his innocence as much as I can."
"Tifa..." Zidane sighed softly. "It's probably too late for that."
"And it's not fair, not at all. He's still a child and until he's old enough, I'll do whatever I can to protect him." She looked at Zidane and he could see the guilt in her eyes. "I shouldn't have brought him here."
"He was right about one thing – the Keyblade is his duty and we'll need him if there are Heartless here. You're a good big sister," Zidane smiled. "Wait here."
He carried Sora back into the forest and placed him on the ground, his back up against a tree. Pulling off his hoodie, Zidane draped it over Sora's shoulders. "Don't go anywhere kiddo." Returning to Tifa's side, he looked into the village and took as deep a breath as he could bear. "Let's get this over with."
The village was a scene similar to what Terra had spoken of. The village had been ripped apart, the people's lives discarded carelessly. This was not a Heartless attack. It lacked their mindlessness. No, the village had been destroyed purposefully. The only question was why. The corpses were either burnt or slashed, the buildings wrecked before they were burnt. Someone had come here and killed the people for a specific reason.
"Terra said parts of this world were at war," Tifa said. "Maybe that's all this is."
"Or maybe it's the Nobodies, trying to draw us out."
Tifa reached into a pocket and pulled out her PHS. "I need to speak to Terra. We need to meet up."
"Let's just do it away from here," Zidane said, looking pale as he took in the dead bodies. "We don't need to be surrounded by all this death. Besides," he looked up at the sky and saw birds of prey circling, "a place like this will only attract more monsters. And we better not leave Sora alone too long. He might go wandering off."
"Sh," Tifa said. "Don't jinx us."
Zidane nodded. "Tell Terra to meet us at the ship. And tell her to come armed. No telling what's lurking around here."
Castle Oblivion wasn't an easy building to look at. The messy design made little sense and dizzied even the sturdiest stomach. Roxas pushed his way inside, the crisp white interior an utter contrast to the chaotic façade. He didn't need more of a struggle right now, not when he could feel Sora's mind trying to tug him down. His shadow had done all he could to teach Roxas how to shield himself from whatever was happening to Sora but feelings still seeped through. It was disquieting, as if someone else's personality was bleeding into him. That thought filled Roxas with rage.
Marluxia emerged from the room beyond the entrance hall. "Number Thirteen, what brings you here?"
"I need to see Naminé," Roxas said, bristling at the reference to his lowly position in the Organization despite his unique and much needed abilities. "The Superior authorised it."
Marluxia was clearly unhappy to have someone else stepping on his turf but he nodded and allowed Roxas to enter. Beyond its entrance, Oblivion was a castle governed by magic and one merely had to think of where they wanted to be and the next door would lead them there. Roxas stepped into a large white room where Naminé sat behind a table, drawings scattered all around her.
"You need to know more about his friends," Roxas said, his shadow detaching itself and forming into a separate person. "We can help."
"I need access to more of his memories," Naminé replied softly. "But Roxas, there's got to be a better way! I hate all this cruelty."
It was the shadow who stepped forward to speak. "You exist only because life is cruel." He took Naminé's hand and pulled her forward until she stood in front of Roxas. "Reach into us and through us, connect to Sora. Find the memories he has of any friends who come from this 'Land of Dragons'. Make him take that next step into darkness."
She hesitated for a moment but then she reached out, her consciousness passing through theirs and down into a dream of a twilit forest where the sky was orange, the trees were green and the air was warm. And in that forest, a brown-haired boy was waiting.
Riku had expected to awaken in pain but the numbness was a comfort. He turned his head, realising he was on a makeshift bed in the corner of DiZ's lab. The room was full of blinking lights and humming machinery. It was so different to the rest of the Twilight Town mansion the lab hid beneath. DiZ was typing away on his massive computer, always calculating, always planning the next move.
"You're awake," the man said without turning his bandaged face. "I healed your wounds. You shouldn't feel any pain or weariness."
"I'm sorry," Riku said, sitting up slowly. "I failed."
"There will be another chance," DiZ responded. "Besides, I took down one member of the Organization. That's one less we need to worry about."
"Did you find out where Axel took Roxas?"
"I didn't need to. Roxas follows Sora and so must you."
Riku's eyes narrowed. His childhood friend's name was enough to bring up a slew of painful memories. "Sora's in danger?"
"Indeed. But when doesn't a Keyblade Master face trouble and strife? Are you ready to face your old friend yet?" DiZ turned, his smile never failing to look bizarre. "I can tell you where he is. Soon, Roxas will be there too."
Riku pushed himself to his feet. He wasn't a coward and if stopping Roxas meant facing up to Sora, he'd do it.
The sky above hovered between day and night, the warmth tapering off as the sun slid away. He was sitting on the grass, his back resting against a tree. It was strange to feel so relaxed in such an empty place. There wasn't a single sound beyond his own breathing. Even the trees refused to rustle in the breeze. This place was suspended, alive and yet dead at the same time. It didn't change. His eyes roamed aimlessly until they settled on the only other person around. A girl stood watching him from the shadows of the trees.
"I really do know you," he said slowly, trying to make the short sentence last long enough for her name to reach his tongue. It was no good. The name he had for her didn't sound right. "I can't remember it. Your name, I mean. It never comes out right."
She smiled, the expression shaky. "That's because the name you give me is no longer mine." She took a few steps forwards, the fading sunlight catching bright blond hair for just a heartbeat. The shadows swept back in, hiding her once again. "I just... I've been meaning to say this for a long time..." He blinked and suddenly she was at his side, her lips by his ear. "I'm so sorry for what I'm going to do to you."
Ice lodged in his heart. "Who are you?"
She didn't answer the question. "Please don't give up. No matter what happens, never give up."
Before he could speak, her hand stabbed into his chest. White light shone out and old pain awoke. He remembered the last time something had pierced his heart, remembered now how that Keyblade had torn him apart. The shock and the pain paralysed him. He couldn't cry out, couldn't believe what he saw as she dug deeper.
"Sorry. I don't have a choice." She drew back, her hand holding the chain she was pulling out of his heart. He watched as her fingers danced over the links, weaving patterns he couldn't follow. She plucked at the air, pulling out page after page of paper covered in coloured scrawls. They fluttered to the ground one by one. He couldn't see what the drawings were but each time a new sheaf hit the ground, he felt weaker. The pain was fading, lethargy replacing it despite the strange tugging ache in his chest. She looked into his eyes, pleading with him. "Please, just hold on. He..."
"I need these."
A black shadow clamped onto the girl's hand. She gasped and Sora saw that her blue eyes were full of tears as she was pulled away by the shadowed man.
"You know you shouldn't be talking to him."
"I'm sorry!" She tried to break free but failed. He took the chain from her hand with ease, yanking on it until Sora stumbled to his feet.
"Wh-what are you doing to me?" Sora gasped.
"Borrowing a few memories," the shadow chuckled, nodding towards the drawings that the girl was now gathering up. "Honestly Sora, you need to stop being so weak. How did someone like you defeat Fallen?" He released the chain and it disappeared back into Sora's chest. "It's no fun at all if you don't fight."
For a moment Sora managed to stay standing. But when his knees gave out, he didn't fall to the ground. Orange sky rushed to meet him and he didn't stop falling, not until he was back in that dark place where his heart was pulled from his body and divided. He stopped slowly, sliding down until he was resting on his side.
Someone had their back against his.
"We're coming for you Sora. There's no other option for any of us."
"We're in trouble, aren't we?"
"I'm not so sure any more. Maybe I'll be fine. Maybe you're the one living on borrowed time. After all," A gloved hand reached around, resting where, under his clothes, Sora's chest had been scarred by a certain Keyblade, "it's not just your heart any more."