The Interference IV, Book 2: Dark Wastelander
"Which is why you, Sora and Riku, are to be tested for the mark of a true Keyblade Master." Master Yen Sid's trademark intensity was focused on the two young men standing in front of his desk, while Mickey and Donald stood near the window. Yen Sid stroked one of the two tails of his long gray beard, then returned that hand to his lap. "No doubt you fancy yourselves masters already, but it takes years of training. Only a true master can teach you the proper way. Both of you are self-taught Keyblade weilders – an impressive feat. However, the time has come to let go of preconceived notions, forget what you know about the Keyblade, and begin your training again with a clean slate."
The entire room gasped in surprise.
"But that's a formality, right?!" Sora exclaimed. "I already proved myself. Me and the King, and Riku – we can take on anything." He looked up at his friend, who stood half a head taller than him. "Right, Riku?"
Riku's eyes fell to the floor. "I don't know." He put forth his hand. In a flash of electricity and dark smoke, the Soul Eater sword appeared in his grip, its creepy blue eye pointed at the master across the table. "I think that in my heart, darkness still has a hold." He dismissed the sword and lowered his hand. "Walking that path changed me. I'm not sure if I'm ready to wield a Keyblade. Maybe I do need to be tested."
Sora's face fell. "Riku..." In usual fashion, though, he bounced back and faced Yen Sid with renewed determination. "Then count me in. Put me through the test! Just watch – me and Riku will pass with flying colors!"
The rest of the room's occupants looked among themselves, not sure how to respond. Yen Sid simply nodded with a blink. Then he turned his head slightly towards Sora. "One other issue before we begin – Sora, is Roxas still awakened in your mind?"
Sora looked off to the side, where he and only he could see the ghost of Roxas standing a few feet next to him, in his Twilight Town clothes. The former XIII's arms were folded and he looked somewhat bored. "Yeah," Sora said, "I'm even starting to see him now. Is that, uh, normal?"
"Alexander's Interference in our 'storyline' has had unforeseen consequences," Yen Sid replied. "There is no precedent for us to follow. All we can do is take caution. Sora, can he see and hear us through you?"
The spirit of Roxas unfolded his arms and gave a questioning look at Sora. "What's this about?"
"I don't know... Uh, I mean, yes he can," Sora responded. "Same as always."
"Very well." Yen Sid's head turned further to his left, looking directly at the spot where Sora had been looking. "Roxas. You have no doubt been gaining greater power and awareness over time. The nature of this test may accelerate that. Therefore, I must forbid you from interfering with the mark of mastery examination, no matter what."
Roxas looked confused. "I... wasn't planning on it? I thought I was just along for the ride until we figured out a way to bring me back."
"He hasn't really been able to do much as it is," Sora said.
"I understand," Yen Sid replied, looking back at Sora. "Still, if the opportunity arises, you must resist temptation. It would not be fair for Sora to receive extra help in the Sleeping Worlds while Riku does not."
"Sleeping Worlds?" Riku asked. "What are those?"
"Does Roxas swear to stay out of the exam?" Yen Sid insisted.
Roxas pinched the bridge of his ghostly nose and sighed. "Fine, fine. I swear."
"He swears," Sora relayed with a nod of his head.
Yen Sid nodded back. "Very well, then. Sora and Riku, let your examination begin."
Jak dropped the Zoomer into the low-flying lane before bringing it to a midair stop and jumping off. He and Daxter were halfway between the Industrial Zone and the Port. It was also where there happened to be a great flaming wreckage that had crashed into a water tower. Krimzon Guards and Heartless (or "Dark Warriors," as the Baron officially called them) were swarming around it, looking for other parts and keeping the curious civilians at a distance.
Daxter, clutching into Jak's shoulder plate, whistled at the carnage as they looked on from afar. "I don't think they're from around here, Jak."
"Looks like there really are other worlds. But why is this here and now?" Jak muttered, his eyes narrowing as he looked over the crowd and at the guards. The last thing he needed was to start another chase, but these guys were preventing him from getting closer and performing his own investigation.
"Excuse me. Step aside." The crowd and the line of Krimzon Guards parted to make way for a red-headed woman in a skimpy, skintight outfit and plentiful tattoos. She glared directly at Jak and said, "Are you–"
"The love of your life? Of course! We've found each other at last!" Daxter jumped off Jak's shoulder and admired the woman from below. "Rraow! I do love a woman in uniform. Wanna bark some orders at me? Woof woof!"
The woman pointed a laser pistol between Daxter's stubby legs, making him flinch and put his hands up. "I really don't have time for this."
A flicker of recognition crossed Jak's face. "Are you... the Baron's daughter?"
"Ashelin Praxis," she replied, holstering her pistol. "And you must be the 'hero' that Alexander talked about."
"Hey! Heroic duo!" Daxter complained.
Ashelin beckoned them to follow. Daxter grumbled and jumped back onto Jak's shoulder as he walked behind her. The guards to the sides aimed their helmeted faces at him, probably giving him dirty looks as he passed, but they didn't stop him.
"Did Alex say anything about this?" Ashelin said, gesturing towards the brightly colored wreckage.
Now that he was closer, Jak could see the ship in slightly greater detail. It seemed to be made out of blocks, many of which were missing as though something had blown voxelized chunks off of it. All that seemed to be left here was some kind of cockpit module, a few body blocks, and one small jet engine out the back. "No. Doesn't look like anything he talked about," Jak said.
Ashelin cursed under her breath. "So we're completely off-script, then. Question is, will this be good for us or bad for us?"
The Heartless looking around the ship, most being the cybernetic Strafers, suddenly all as one came to attention, jumped into the air, and disappeared into dark portals. The Krimzon Guards standing around recoiled in confusion.
"...If the Heartless are worried, then it might be good," Ashelin noted. "Where's Alex?"
"You don't know?" Jak asked.
"I know the two of you took the scenic route to the Palace last night," she replied with a little bit of annoyance in her voice. "But I assume you made it out."
Jak's head lowered. "Well–"
"Hey!" Daxter interrupted. "How do we know we can trust you?"
Jak waved his hand dismissively in front of Daxter's face. "Do you know where the Oracle is? Big square hut at the end of the Water Slums."
"I know that place," Ashelin replied, taking a few steps towards her personal Hellcat Cruiser hovering at the other side of the clearing. She stopped and looked back, noting the expression on Jak's face. "Is something wrong?"
Daxter groaned and wiped down his face with his paw. "Alex got kinda messed up by some clone of his, so–"
Ashelin's eyes widened. She raced over to her Cruiser and fired up the engines.
The Ottsel jumped off Jak's shoulder and tried to dash over to the base of the vehicle, getting buffeted by the air currents the whole way. "Hey!" he frantically shouted over the sound of the engine. "Do you and him have a thing going? 'Cuz if not, lemme get your digits!"
Jak carefully approached behind Daxter. "What should we do about the ship?" he shouted.
"If you want to help," Ashelin yelled as the Cruiser rose into the air, "try tracking down where the pilots emergency-landed before my father does! They might be allies!" She then shifted the Cruiser into the high lane and boosted off towards the Industrial Zone.
"We'll party hard! BIG CITY STYLE!" Daxter screamed after her.
"Geez... Never thought I'd miss that black hood."
Lea (formerly Axel) hid behind a wall pillar along the northern street of the Port. It didn't provide much cover, but it was better than nothing. No longer a Nobody, he was wearing a more standard set of adventuring clothes. But if he'd had a hood, black and conspicuous as it was, at least it would help cover the most conspicuous part of his figure right now: His short, regular human ears. Everyone else in this world seemed to have ridiculously long elven ears.
And with the menacing-looking red guards sweeping every zone after the crash, Lea decided the last thing he wanted to do was get caught.
He peeked around the pillar again, then hid as a patrol of Krimzon Guards stomped by. "I've run some ugly missions for the Organization..." he muttered to himself once they were out of earshot, "but this might take the cake."
Once the guards passed, there was an opening. The street along the water stretched a very long distance in either direction. The flying vehicles overhead were a potential opportunity, but he didn't want to attract attention by outright stealing someone's ride. But if he stayed put or tried to hoof it, he'd get noticed sooner or later.
There was a gaudily decorated building a short way down, with a neon sign in a language Lea didn't recognize and a giant animatronic... creature slowly flapping its fat maw over the entrance. He wasn't sure what kind of building it was. There was a chance it was packed and he'd just get noticed faster, but he had to take some kind of gamble. At least it probably wasn't a government building (unless that pig-looking thing was supposed to be a police mascot, and Lea didn't think these guys had ANY of the required sense of humor for that).
Another guard was coming around from behind, so Lea power-walked his way down the street and quickly ducked through the automatic door into...
...a saloon? A really atrociously smelly saloon. Ugh. At least there was next to no one around. A pretty-looking blonde was tending the bar, and there was a menacingly armored dude in one of the darkened restaraunt booths to the side, a rifle decorated with an alien skull resting on the table. The man and Lea briefly made eye contact – the dark-skinned man had a cybernetic red eyepiece instead of a right eye.
Feeling nervous, Lea quickly hurried to the booth closest to the door and sat down, hoping no one would ask why he was there.
"ATTENTION LOYAL SUBJECTS! THIS IS BARON PRAXIS!"
"Oh!" Keyblade Master Aqua flinched just the tiniest bit. The tiny metal post just a few feet away in the middle of the Bazaar had bloomed a giant holographic image of Baron Praxis's emblem. The emblem vibrated as the Baron's electronic voice blasted out from the post.
"In the coming hours you may hear rumors that a spaceship has crash-landed in our fair city. Those rumors are FALSE! We are NOT under attack from any extra-terrestrials, and there is no indication that our enemy, the Metal Heads, have any kind of space program. The brightest minds in the Krimzon Guard have determined that the incident near the Industrial Sector is an elaborate Underground hoax meant to terrify you all and weaken our city to outside attack! Be not afraid! Our walls are secure, our defense systems top-notch!"
Aqua looked around to see how the other civilians in the Bazaar were reacting to this. Most were looking at the display, some were ignoring it or just listening. All of them looked tired and afraid.
"That being said," the announcement continued, "if you find any strangely colored blocks in the city, deliver them to the nearest Krimzon Guard! Any person caught in illegal possession of one of these blocks will be IMMEDIATELY arrested! Also, be on the lookout for strange persons among you."
Aqua started to back away from the hologram.
"There have been reports that the Underground hired dangerous Wastelanders to perpetrate the 'spaceship' hoax. If you see someone who does not look like us, do not approach them, and instead report them to the Krimzon Guard at once. They are subversives hell-bent on destroying Haven City. Do NOT let them operate for a second longer! Serve your city! Sacrifice for your city!" The hologram then shut off.
There were too many eyes in the Bazaar. Some of them were looking curiously at her, with her strange partially armored attire and short, rounded ears. Aqua got the sense that this Baron wasn't exactly loved by the populace, but were they afraid enough to follow his orders? A confrontation with these guards wasn't something she was afraid of, per se, but it would complicate an already complicated mission.
A male voice bumped into her while she'd been backing up. She turned around and saw... some kind of brightly colored flying monkey?
"Quick, let's get you away from prying eyes," the flying monkey said in a distinctive accent and flapping frantically. "I have a place you can lay low for a while." He turned around and flew deeper into the Bazaar.
Aqua didn't see much of a choice, so she followed the flying... monkey? Macaw? Moncaw?
The air was suddenly filled with an ear-piercing claxon that repeated over and over. Red lights on the giant city walls started blinking.
The moncaw looked around frantically, then breathed a sigh of relief. "No guards in sight; it's not us. Let's get to Onin."
"Wait," Aqua finally said, stopping. "It might be one of my friends."
The creature landed and turned back to her with an exasperated look. "Look, lady, a city-wide alert is a very bad time to try to regroup. Your friends will have to shake off the guards on their own."
"I saw that dog-looking thing go this way!"
"Spread out. Don't let it escape!"
As boots stomped across the dirty streets of the Slums, Goofy peeked out from under a collapsed part of the street, then crawled backwards into the tunnel surrounding a sewage pipe.
Goofy turned around and cried out "Woaah–!" before a hand reached out and clamped his giant mouth shut.
"What was that? Did you hear that?!"
A heavily tattooed man with a furrowed brow looked Goofy over and noticed the shield resting on the pipe. "You friends with Alexander?" he asked in a gravelly voice.
Goofy nodded vigorously, making 'Mmhmm! Mmhmm!' noises through his closed mouth.
The man grinned. "You're gonna be right at home in the Underground, then. C'mon. Got a tunnel that leads right to our hideout. The Shadow will want to meet you." He released Goofy's mouth and, after waiting to make sure the cartoon dog wasn't going to make any more noise, carefully crouch-walked further into the tunnel.
Goofy put a finger to his oversized chin. "The Shadow...?" he murmured quietly to himself. He picked up his shield and crawled along.
"I think she went this way!"
A duo of guards charged up the steps of Mar Memorial Stadium with rifles loaded and drawn. They stomped towards the security bollards partially blocking the left wing of the stadium. Just as they were about to cross over, though, a woman with blue-green hair stepped in the way. "Woah woah, where do you think you're going?!"
"We saw a dangerous fugitive run this way," said the guard on the woman's right. "She's armed. She took out my KG Zoomer in one shot! I had to jump off!"
"Well, I work back here. If I'd seen a dangerous armed fugitive run through here, I would've noticed."
"Still have to investigate," the guard grumbled, and took a step forward. But his partner put a gloved hand on his armored shoulder to stop him. "What?!"
"You don't know?" his partner said. "This is the race mechanic. Erol says the garage is off limits."
"And for good reason," the woman jumped in, folding her arms. "If the Captain thought anyone had tampered with the NYFE Zoomers, especially his, you'd better believe heads would roll." She rolled her eyes. "Look, I didn't see anyone. Try somewhere else before you lose her."
The first guard angrily pulled his shoulder away from his partner's hand and growled. "Fine. Let's search the stadium grounds." The two guards walked away towards the other hall that led to the public entrance.
Keira sighed and hurried back to her garage. "Now how about you tell me..." When she walked back in, though, the room seemed to be empty. Empty, save for the drawn curtain hiding her secret project... Fearing the worst, Keira threw open the curtain and saw the purple-haired, helmeted, short-eared woman staring at the papers taped to the wall near her Rift Rider. "Hey, what are you doing?!" Keira shouted. "Get out of there!"
"Sorry, sorry," Lucca apologized, quickly moving back through the curtain. "Just figured it would make it easier to hide."
Keira frowned and closed the curtain all the way on both sides. "Guess I couldn't expect you to know that. But seriously, don't tell anyone what you saw back there, okay?"
Lucca stared at the curtain for a few moments, before saying, "Are those..."
"Don't. Say. Anything," Keira insisted.
"I won't, but... Are those temporal teleportation calculations back there?"
More than a little shocked, Keira stared back at the strange girl and said, "How would you know that?"
Lucca smirked and adjusted her glasses, which briefly caught the glare of the overhead light. "I'm an inventor. And let's just say I have a lot of experience with time travel. You helped hide me, so if you need any help with that..."
"Hold on, back up." Keira stepped closer to Lucca, glancing over her shoulder to make sure no one else was around. She whispered, "You're a time traveler too...?"
"Not right now. But I had to travel across millions of years to help prevent an apocalypse in my future."
"Well... okay," Keira mumbled, still a little numb. "I'm... Well... Me, my father, and two of my friends, we came here through a Rift. About 200 years into the future. This terrible, terrible future! Since then I've been trying to find them and build our way home." She invited Lucca back behind the curtain, and the inventor followed. "The calculations are done, the replica's almost finished; I just need to find the rest of the pieces. And the Rift Ring itself."
Lucca pushed her glasses up. "Hmm. The ship we had, it was capable of traveling under its own power. But you need this 'Rift Ring' to do that here."
"Do you still have that ship?"
"No, sorry. Some genius decided to crash it into a monster." That gave Lucca an idea. "But he might have a time spell that could help. Have you seen a boy, around 15, short ears like mine? Possibly carrying a shield?"
Keira folded her arms under her short tank top. "That rings a bell... But the last time I saw someone like that, it was... over a year ago, I think."
Behind her glasses, Lucca's eyes widened in alarm. "What...? Why would he have been here a year ago?"
"Maybe he was time traveling?" Keira asked.
"Maybe..." The inventor wasn't sure how the story of this 'game' was supposed to go, so maybe it was necessary for Alex to be here early. But then why the delay? Why were the four of them only able to arrive now? Something seemed very off about all this.
Aqua ducked into the modest little brown tent and knelt down. The sides were filled to the brim with dressers, bags, bowls, occult items, liquid tanks, and the occasional mysterious unexplained light. On the center rug sat an emaciated blind old woman, a row of candles in front of her. The moncaw landed on the bowl atop the woman's head. Aqua knelt down on the other side of the candles.
"This is Onin!" the moncaw announced, then gave a bow. "And I am Peckerrrrrrrrr, her humble translator."
Aqua bowed her head, though the implication of the bird's name hit her a moment later. She blinked and decided to forge on, saying, "Nice to meet you. My name is Aqua. Thank you for letting me stay here."
The old woman began to trace patters in the air with a mystical blue light from her fingertips. Pecker observed the motions. "Onin says a protector of light is always welcome, and much needed in these times. She humbly asks if you might lend your Keyblade in our defense, now that the protector of darkness has been crippled."
"Protector of darkness..." Aqua echoed, slightly confused. "Do you mean Alexander? And... how can someone be a 'protector of darkness,' anyway?" Every time she'd seen darkness used in her travels, it was to corrupt and destroy.
Pecker face-winged. Onin's eyes narrowed, and she began to wave yin-yang symbols into the air and gesture forcefully. "Now you've done it," Pecker muttered. "She's going on and on about the balance of light and dark, shadows, the nature of the heart, yadda yadda yadda." He looked directly at Aqua and pushed his wing-fingers together. "Here's the summary. A clone opened up Alex's heart and now his power's all unfocused and he's perpetually on the verge of becoming a Heartless."
Aqua gasped. "Oh no..." She needed him to chase down Kronos, Hyperion, and Themis... didn't she? Aqua stood up. "Then I'd better find him and get the information I need–"
"Nononono, sit down," Pecker insisted. Aqua frowned but knelt back down. Onin gestured some more, and Pecker said, "Here's the big, BIG problem. Onin says if Alexander kicks the bucket before our world reaches a 'nexus event,' basically an end to our 'story,' then... there's a chance all of us in this world poof back into nothing! Because his heart observing us is what's giving us our existence. And until we secure some kind of future for ourselves, we need an Interference."
This was getting worse and worse. "Is that true?"
"And that's just one worst case scenario!" Pecker continued, half-translating and half adding his own take on things. "You four newcomers are game characters, but you're technically kind of Interferences yourselves, so maybe we'll be fine if Alex goes away. But if he becomes a Heartless... there's no telling what kind of power a Heartless Interference might have, especially one like him."
Closing her eyes and furrowing her brow, Aqua said, "So you'll need a Keyblade if that happens."
"We need a Keyblade right now! That's just the endgame! Right now, three evil factions are about to reshuffle their alliances, and innocent people – arrrk! – like yours truly are stuck in the crossfire! Would you really abandon us in our hour of need?"
Onin finished her gestures, clapped her hands rogether, and bowed in pleading prayer.
Aqua took a few moments to think. Her closest friends (in the past) had been robbed by powerful imposters, and the leader had made it sound like all of the worlds were at stake. But her own future self had insisted she find Alexander first. Was this why? Did she really have time to help yet another world? Or was she supposed to save Alexander from the darkness? Or was it too late and she just needed to find out what he knew about Kronos?
She opened her eyes and sighed. "I'll see what I can do," she replied. "But as soon as I'm no longer needed, I have to get back to my mission."
Onin smiled and made a few hand motions. Pecker translated, "That's all we ask."
The tent fell into awkward silence. Aqua still couldn't exactly leave yet due to the city alarm still sounding off, and Onin seemed finished with her exposition.
"Say," Pecker said out of the blue, "do you want to play a minigame?"
It felt like an eternity had gone by.
The Oracle's hut was blurry and unfocused.
"Rise and shine..."
Alexander Karsath started with a jolt and pushed himself up onto his elbow, looking around. The room was empty save for the Oracle statue itself, which was silent.
He felt awful. Numb but also burning and also like something was crawling inside–
Alex banged his head against the wooden floor. Crawling in my skin. Great, I'm a walking Linkin Park song now. Just what I need.
He pushed himself towards the wall and maneuvered to a sitting position. Every bone in his body felt sore. The last time he'd gotten a Dark Eco injection from the Oracle hadn't been exactly pleasant, but at least that pain eventually passed. Now there was this constant undercurrent of baseline horribleness.
The door to the hut opened, shining the morning light into the candle-lit hut. Ashelin Praxis hurried inside, closing the door behind her, and knelt next to Alex. "Are you alright?" she asked, reaching a hand out to his face.
A sick feeling rose up in Alex's chest, like he was about to throw up... or explode.
"Stay back!" he shouted, swatting Ashelin's hand away.
Two seconds later, violet energy crackled across his entire body, causing him to scream out in pain. Wispy tendrils of darkness pooled in his chest and tried to spread out, but the purple electricity seemed to push it back, burning the wisps away until there was nothing left.
Ashelin backed away in fear.
After half a minute, the dark electrocution finally stopped, and Alexander's body fell still. Alex was barely conscious.
When he regained control of his body and could see properly again, Alex groaned and looked down at his body. He pushed away the folds of his blue coat and tugged down the collar of his black undershirt.
Across the skin of his chest was a void-black mark, shaped like a sun with tendrils grasping out, reaching across almost half of his torso. Like a gaping, cracked hole where his heart should be. Tiny wisps of darkness occasionally whirled up from the center of the mark.
Alex looked up at Ashelin, who could clearly see the hole in his chest too. "Well," he groaned, "that's not good."