I said that I would finish this chapter by the end of October, so I could focus on my NaNoWriMo without regret. And I have. Huzzah!
Disclaimer: I don't own anything to do with Digimon or Kingdom Hearts. Nothing at all.
Kingdom of the Elemental Hearts
Chapter 31: The Heart of Creation
The shadowy vortex clung to the gleaming wall like a tumor, eating away at the light like acid through paper. Every few moments, a blast of energy – bursts of wind and lightning, fountains of fire and ice, geysers of earth and steel – bubbled from the belching, moaning depths of the vortex.
"What the hell is that?" Junpei asked, reeling back and covering his nose with his arm.
Mickey glanced up at the magical display that hovered in the middle of his study, wrinkling his nose in disgust. "It's the Cauldron, the way it looks right now."
"No way," Sora said, gaping at the display. "There's just no way! That's –"
"It's a mess, I know," Mickey sighed. "It's all because of Myotismon. He's the one who's causing this."
Taichi slammed his fist into the opposite hand. "I knew it! That son of a bitch never gives up!"
"What's he doing?" Kairi asked, clutching her hands over the Pendant as she peered up at the wall. "And why?"
"That's easy," said Taichi, "Myotismon only ever wants one thing: Power, power and more power."
Mickey nodded in distracted agreement, his eyes trailing across the wall of light. "He's been burrowing into the heart of the Cauldron this whole time. Somehow, he managed to keep himself together, even in the midst of the elemental chaos. Now he's eating his way into the cauldron's heart."
"Like a worm in an apple?" Tomoki ventured. Junpei gulped and discarded the aforementioned half-eaten green fruit.
"Exactly. Watch this."
Mickey stepped back, dimming the lights with a wave of his hand. The tension was so thick that all speech was smothered. Kouji shuddered in the harsh silence, clutching the Licht Sager's handle with both hands. Goofy clapped his hands over his muzzle, muffling a quiet 'hyuck' before it could bubble out.
A bubble burst from the wall of light, which pulsed with energy. It radiated out in all directions, so bright an tactile that even Mickey's magical illusion was enough to send a shudder down their collective spines. The energy dispersed within a few seconds, leaving them in silence again. Kouichi was the first to speak, swallowing despite his dry throat. "What was that?"
"Myotismon has corrupted the core of the Cauldron," Mickey said, his tone grave. It's become unstable. If something doesn't stop him soon, the Cauldron could break apart completely."
He let the gravity of losing the source of all creation sink in for a moment. It settled into the group's stomach s like mouthfuls of gravel.
"We have to stop him," Tomoki said, serious and steady.
"Hell yeah," said Riku.
"He won't go down easy," Taichi warned. "Especially with all that extra power."
Kouji snorted. "They never do."
"Which is why we have to try," King Mickey said and clapped his hands together. The display of the Cauldron disappeared with a flash, and the light came back up in an instant. "By the Cauldron's very nature, it'll be a dangerous trip, but our group will have the best chance."
Izumi cocked her head to the side. "Because of these?" she asked, indicating the Ring.
"Indirectly, yes," Mickey said. "Remember, the Cauldron is the source of all raw elements. Anything that enters will be broken down into those elements, even people – even Hearts. But the Hearts chosen by those weapons are made of almost nothing a single element and pure willpower. That power should be enough to keep you stable until you reach where Myotismon is hiding – and Sora, your Keyblade will protect you just as well.
"Still, the less people we put in danger, the better…"
"Then we'll only take one ship," Sora decided, his young voice brimming with authority. "Four people, and I'm going."
"Same here," Kouichi said seriously, fingering the smooth swirls that adorned the Sager's handle. "I want to finish this."
Kouichi, who had been hovering quietly in the heart of the group, grabbed Kouji's sleeve. "Me too."
"I want to go," Kouichi insisted, and the Staff vibrated in his hand. "I want to stay with you, Kouji."
Kouji hesitated, but couldn't think of any excuse. Sora sighed and smiled.
Three people away, Riku's expression grew more serious than ever. "Then I'm going too."
"I don't think that would be wise, Riku," Mickey warned. "Your heart's still wrapped in the darkness, split between two elements. It would be more dangerous for you."
"I'm going," Riku said firmly. "I'm not going to stay behind while my best friend and my…" he gazed at Kouichi uncertainly a moment, then shook himself and started over. "I'm not going to lose track of my friends again. So I'm going."
A couple of good-natured snickers echoed through the room, and Queen Minnie giggled behind her hand. Riku ignored them, but Kouichi blushed. Mickey just grinned knowingly.
At that moment, a rumble, too low for any of them to hear but strong enough for them all to feel, echoed through the castle. The shining building rocked on its foundation, or perhaps the entire world was rattled from its core.
"Oooh, now what?" Junpei yelped, grabbing the wall for support.
"Earthquake!" squawked Donald.
"No!" Mickey called, supporting Minnie in his arms. "It's the pulsations from the Cauldron! They're getting stronger!"
The rumbling faded away seconds later, leaving them to pick themselves up. Takuya rolled to his feet and scowled at the ceiling, as though he could see the polluted Cauldron through all the mortar and stone. "You mean, they've made it all the way out here? And they're still that strong?"
"Yes. It means the corruption is getting worse," Mickey said, making sure that Minnie was steady before he headed for the door. "We're running out of time."
( - )
Burning, freezing, blowing, rushing. Pushing, pulling, stretching, tearing, bursting, all at the same time. He was screaming, he could not make a sound. He was struggling, he could not fight. He was everywhere and nowhere. He was everything and nothing.
He was in control.
Creation, consumption, chaos and control. He was all of these things, now and always. God. Master. Lord of all things.
He was in control. Everything was his.
Especially his children.
( - )
If the pulsations had been jarring on the surface, they were deafening in the cavernous docking bay. Though still too deep and low to truly hear, the rippling waves of energy rattled their skeletons in their bodies. Izumi moaned and pressed her hands over her ears as another rumble shook the observation deck.
"Oh god," she moaned. "I don't know how much more of this I can take."
"Those vibrations are disrupting the fabric of reality," Mickey explained, though his eyes remained trained on the Gummi Ship. The docking bay's mechanical arms shrieked in protest as Chip and Dale loaded on all of the magical defense gummies that the craft could handle. "It'll only get worse from here on out. That's why the rest of us have to hold back and stabilize a defensive measure, to break the waves before they cause any major damage."
"But you'll be safe, right?" Kouichi asked, wringing his hands around the Staff. "This defense won't hurt any of you, will it? And you'll be able to keep it up?"
Mickey grinned at the teen comfortingly. "As long as you four do your part, the rest of us will be just fine. I guarantee it."
Sora took a deep breath, flexing his fingers in their white gloves. He tried to release all of the tension in his body along with his air, but could not quite expel all of the butterflies. "What are we waiting for, then?"
"Just a few more minutes," Mickey implored, nudging a certain block into place. "The Gummi Ship probably won't make it into the heart of the Cauldron, but I want to give you boys the best chance I can."
Sora opened his mouth to respond, but it was cut short by a hand on his arm. Kairi took the Keyblade master's hand in her own and smiled at him warmly. "Just relax," she soothed. "Everything's going to be all right. We believe in you. All of you."
"Damn straight," Takuya said and thumped Kouji on the back. The unofficial leader of their little group of friends might have looked light-hearted at first glance, but Kouji could see the uncertainty hovering in those auburn-brown eyes.
As though hearing his friend's thoughts, Takuya sighed, rubbed the back of his head and looked to the twins with an awkward expression of concern. "…You know, I really kinda wish I was going with you."
Kouji crossed his arms over his chest. "You don't think we can handle this?"
"Of course you can handle it. That doesn't mean I'm not worried." Takuya scowled, and the expression didn't suit him. "Just be careful out there, okay?"
"Yeah, and watch out for each other," Tomoki added, tugging on Kouichi's arm. "We only just got back together. I don't wanna lose you guys again."
Kouichi gave his younger friend a hug. 'Don't worry. That won't happen, I promise."
"You better keep that," Junpei said. "Hey, either you do or the whole world probably gets destroyed. So you know, no worries."
Izumi knocked him up the side of the head. "Junpei, don't even joke!"
"That's definitely not going to happen," Sora insisted, not quite acknowledging Izumi the same way he didn't quite acknowledge the arm he wrapped around Kairi's shoulder. "There's no way I'll ever let that happen."
Goofy hyuck'ed, a large grin spread over his face. "That's our Sora!"
"Then you better keep that promise, too!" Donald squawked, gesturing violently with his wand. "Or I'm gonna have to hunt you down and blow to Kingdom Come!"
"I'd like to see you try!"
Riku stepped between Sora and the duck with an amused smirk. "That's enough of that. This isn't the time to fight. Not with each other, anyway."
Sora pouted. "But we like fighting!"
"Yeah, we always fight!" Donald added, and Riku laughed.
"I know what that's like," Takuya said, grinning at Kouji. "Ah, good times. We'll have to pick that back up once this is all over."
Kouji smirked. "You're on."
Another bone-shattering rumble radiated through the world, knocking some of their number off-balance. Sora pulled Kairi close and held her against his chest. Everyone else held their breath.
As the rumbling subsided, Mickey turned back to the group with a serious gaze. "It's done."
Sora nodded, giving Kairi – his Kairi – one last squeeze before he stepped away. "Then let's go."
( - )
They were coming. Not all of them, but some. He could feel them.
The energy that radiated from his realm – no, from his body, from himself – told him everything. They were coming, his children, his treasures. But only free.
No matter. The rest were bound to follow. It was inevitable.
It was his will.
He was in control.
( - )
It was worse than it had seemed from afar. Much, much worse.
Mickey's miniature magical display could never have prepared them for the abject horror that faced them when the Gummi Ship appeared from warp drive. The corrosive vortex dwarfed their tiny ship as though it were an insect. Its putrid composition, a cross between darkness and raw entropy, blended together into an acid-like causality, which ate away at the previously-impenetrable wall of light. At its heart, the raw materials of the universe lay exposed, twisting together in an endless void of belching chaos.
"Woah," said Sora to fill the silence, but the word did nothing to express the cold dread that dripped down the back of his throat like a lump of sludge.
"Belt up," Kouji muttered, swallowing his own fear. "We can't chicken out now."
"It wasn't going to!"
"Not like we'd let you, anyway," Riku smirked from the co-pilot's seat. "You may be driving, but we're all in this together, right?"
"Right," Kouichi agreed, and Sora felt his affirmation was entirely too bright for the situation.
The Keyblade master shrugged and turned back to the controls. He took a long, deep breath through his nose, filling his lungs to capacity and rubbed his gloved hands together. "All right," he said, gripping the wheel with both hands. "Buckle up and hang on tight, we're going in."
The warning was unnecessary, as all four of the teens were already securely strapped into their seats. Sora hesitated just a moment longer, waiting for a violent belch of ice and thunder to pass by before he finally yanked the controls around and dove into the vortex's core.
For the first few seconds of the move, everything was normal. Space moved the same way that space had always moved, which is to say that it didn't move at all, they did. However, the moment they passed through the event horizon, everything changed.
Chaos surround them, spreading in all directions with their poor ship as the central point. Or perhaps they were the on the periphery of it all, being drawn further and deeper into the endless vortex. It was impossible to tell.
All around them, raw elements were being forged and smelt, bursting into existence and violent non-existence. Ice burned, fire froze, earth jerked in all directions and thunder stood perfectly still. Caught in the middle of it all was their tiny, quivering vessel, which rocked and jerked and shirked in protests as its pieces were stretched in all directions.
"Not good, not good, not good!" Sora yelped, yanking at his controls furiously."This place is insane! It's pulling the ship apart!"
Riku growled, barely able to keep his own controls stable. "Just keep together Sora!"
"Over there!" Kouji called, pointing through the windshield at a solid blue surface that hung suspended in the space before them. "Aim for that! Bring her down!"
"Easy for you to say!"
"Look out!" Kouichi shouted, but by that time, the shimmering asteroid of ice had already sliced through the poor ship's left wing.
Now short one wing and one engine, the Gummi Ship tumbled through the elemental chaos. Its passengers were tossed about like the contents of a salad bowl, their straps tearing from their seats. Sora barely had time to shout the terrifyingly obvious, "We're gonna crash!" before the fragile bricks were shattered apart and they were falling, falling…
In an instant, the falling Gummi Bricks froze in mid-air, clustered together just enough for the passengers to scramble for a hold. They barely had time to realize that they were not, in fact, dead on arrival before Kouichi's voice broke through again. "Jump!"
To make his point clear, the young warrior of darkness dropped through the gaps in the half-destroyed ship and landed on the smooth surface below. Riku, Kouji and finally Sora followed suit, tumbling out of the doomed ship just before Kouichi's spell wore off. Time returned with a vengeance, the remnants of their ship flying apart and crashing into a wall of pure earth in a fiery, sticky mess. The rubbery plastic melted in mid-collision, leaving behind a jumble reminiscent of burnt, melted marshmallows.
The teens stayed crouched on the smooth blue surface – water in a solid form that was somehow not ice – until the last explosion cracked away. Slowly, they rolled to their feet and observed the carnage from a distance.
Riku breathed a sigh of relief and clasped Kouichi's hand. "Nice thinking. You really saved our tails."
Kouichi blushed and shrugged modestly. "I just…acted on instinct."
"Damn good instincts," Sora said appreciatively, bounding to his feet. Kouji rolled to his feet as well, brushing off his clothes and giving his brother a silent smile. The Keyblade Master glanced around. "Everybody okay?"
They were, so they pulled themselves together and took a look at the shifting plane of existence that squirmed around them like a living being. There were a few surfaces of vague stability, like the one on which they currently stood, scattered throughout, but the rest was constantly twisting and changing, never the same from one moment to the next.
"This place is insane," Sora said with a low whistle, giving voice to the one thought flickering through all of their minds. "Which way are we supposed to go?"
Riku, Kouji and Sora chorused those two words in with perfect synchronization, accompanied by a ring from Sora's Keyblade, and all pointed in the same direction. Sora blinked in surprised but, finding himself overruled and without a clue, conceded with a shrug. "If you say so."
They set off across the shifting world, hopping from stability to temporary stability. The bizarre solidity of elements that should never be solid – electricity, fire, even air – was disconcerting, but also helpful and a welcome respite. It was the empty spaces in between, where they had to jump and stretch and throw themselves across the empty gaps, that were really dangerous.
Tongues of elemental charge struck from nowhere, taking them by surprise and routinely knocking them off-course. Reflectga, Riku's Shield and the automatic defense of Silver Fang's presence saved their hides from dozens of close calls, and only their own alert reflexes, kept them all from spinning off into the void.
"I think I'm going to be sick," Sora said after one particularly bad brush with a stream of ice, tumbling onto a sheet of pure metal. "This place is like the bad dreams of every body in Wonderland and Halloween Town combined."
Kouji wrinkled his nose a bit as the comparison, gazing out at the swirling void from the very edge of their defensive island. "I can't even tell how far we've gone. Are we even getting close to this place at all?"
"I wonder if it's always like this," Kouichi pondered out loud, leaning on his staff like a tired old man. "Or maybe it's only this horrible because of Myotismon. It's so crazy in here, it's hard to tell."\
"Well, it's a cauldron, right?" Riku interjected, rubbing the remains of a flame encounter off the glassy surface of his Shield. "I bet it's usually blended together, everything melted over a high heat, you know? Myotismon's the only one gunking it all up."
"Not like it matters," Kouji muttered, rolling his eyes as he made his way to the edge of the metal landing. "Who cares why it's happening? We know the bastard's messing with the world, and we need to stop him."
"Sounds good to me," Sora chuckled, leaping easily to a chunk of earth.
Kouichi covered his mouth to hide a few small chuckles, which earned him a strange look from his brother. "I suppose that's all right," he said brightly, jumping after the Keyblade Master. "As long as you both agree."
Riku smirked as well and moved to follow, but in mid-jump, something happened. Riku's face contorted in pain at the apex of his arch and her jerked suddenly to the side as though stumbling in mid-air.
"Riku-kun!" Kouichi shouted, realizing what was happening seconds before the silver-haired boy was spun off-course.
Kouji leapt through the air, his limbs extended like a pouncing wolf and grabbed Riku by the foot. The odd angles spun them both, swinging Kouji over 360 degrees before the gravity of the earthen ground, dragging Riku with him and the two lay there, winded.
Sora and Kouichi rushed over. "You guys okay? Anything broken?"
"Fine," Riku groaned, forcing himself up. "I'm fine."
Kouji snorted, rolling to his feet. He caught Riku's eye and smirked. "Now we're even."
"Riku-kun," Kouichi said softly, kneeling beside him and placing a gentle hand on his shoulder. "What happened?"
Guilt flickered across Riku's features, silver-haired boy shrugged helplessly. "I…I really don't know," he admitted. "It just started to hurt. It was like someone was trying to rip something out of my gut."
Sora tapped his chin, rolling the information over in his mind. "Maybe it's that thing King Mickey was talking about? The two parts of your Heart trying to break apart."
"Then you should go back," Kouichi said, his brows knotting together worriedly.
"Oh yeah? How?" Riku motioned to the empty void behind them where their previous platforms had disappeared. "We don't even have a ship."
Kouichi conceded the point, but worried his bottom lip with his teeth as he helped Riku back to his feet.
"No way to go but forward," Kouji said with confidence, and they continued on.
After an eternity – or maybe it was only a few moments, this place made it hard to tell – they finally landed on a thick, wide plane of solid darkness that stretched into a cave-like hole of absolutely nothing. The realization of this was more instinctual than visual, as the darkness and void were indistinguishable. Sora and Kouji quickly became disoriented, stumbling across the shadows. Kouichi and Riku felt their way through naturally, guiding their companions with their voices and touch.
"It's just a little further," Kouichi assured. He squeeze Kouji's hand. "Don't worry, we'll be out of this soon."
"How can you even tell?" Sora demanded.
Riku gave his old friend a shove in the proper direction. "Call it a feeling."
"Just trust us. We're almost out."
Slowly, the shapeless void around them began to take form. Definition arose from the darkness, illustrated in contrast and gradients of shadow. They found themselves in a short, wide hall with towering vaulted ceilings, standing before a door. It was the same size and ordinate style as the door to Kingdom Hearts, but seemed carved from onyx and obsidian.
"This is it," Kouji muttered, the Sager humming a confirmation in his grip. "He's here. Behind this door."
"Then what're we waiting for?" Sora demanded for the second time that day. He lunged for the handle, but missed, still unable to quite perceive the difference between darkness and shadow given form.
Riku tugged his friend back by his hood before Sora could hit the ground. The silver-haired warrior grasped the doorknob on the first try. On his other side, Kouichi took hold of the handle's partner, subtly guiding his brother, who was unwilling to admit to his blindness. After a moment of fumbling, Sora grabbed on as well.
It took all four of them to wrench the heavy doors open inch by stubborn inch. A pale, sickly light poured from the crack they created the, spilling into the darkness, It was barely a drop compared to the endless plane of shadow behind them, but it was enough to return their sight.
The first thing they saw was that they were surrounded.
In an instant, the formless shadows realigned themselves as Heartless, a twisted army trapped somewhere between their normal existence and the Shadow Realm. Long strips of shadowy skin fell off them like cloth, pealing away to reveal the unique, grotesque creatures within. Thousands of these creatures clustered around the door, and thousands more waiting in the endless shadows, chattering amongst themselves like a flock of every pigeon in the world.
"Shit," Sora swore, and was about to go for his Keyblade when Kouichi's voice broke through:
Everyone froze. Kouichi kept his voice low and his mouth barely moved as he spoke. "The second any of us let go of the door, they'll attack. All of them."
"How do you know?"
"They're saying so."
Kouji's eyebrows shot to his hairline. "You can understand them?"
"Not me, no," Kouichi said, nodding to the Staff that still buzzed in his hand. "But it can. That's how I know."
Sora whistled. "Creepy."
Riku jabbed an elbow into his old friend's ribs.
Kouji, meanwhile, was watching the Heartless with a hawk-like gaze, tallying their forces. "There's no telling how many there are, but I don't think we could take them all."
"They're too close," Riku agreed. "They'd be on us before we get through the door."
"And follow us. We won't get it closed in time."
"But we can't just stay here!" Sora insisted. "We have to go!"
Kouji hissed between his teeth, gripping the Sager as one over-eager Heartless shuffled closer. Kouichi glanced over at his brother's weapon and noticed how weak it seemed. Its natural light was sickly pale, the green swirls faded into near non-existence, its buzzing vitality reduced to a haunting stillness with only a few meager crackles of energy. Sora's Keyblade was in a similar state, motionless and dull. The endless darkness was muffling their light, suffocating its magic. In this shadow, their power was negligible.
Riku realized this was well, and his eyes met Kouichi's. They came to a conclusion without speaking a single word.
Kouichi shifted, freeing one hand to reach for his brother's shoulder. "Kouji?"
"What's wrong?" Kouji demanded, his tone protective and sharp.
"Nothing, it's just…" Kouichi trialed over, giving his brother's shoulder a squeeze. "Everybody's counting on us, right?""
Kouji glanced at his twin. On the other side of the door, Riku was shifting to place his shoulder against Sora's side. "What's gotten into you, Nii-san?"
"I told you, nothing. Just listen. Everyone's counting on us to get rid of Myotismon, right?"
"Then we can't let this slow you down. You have to keep going and take him out."
Kouji scowled. "You mean we. We have to keep going."
"No, Kouji. You."
With that, Kouichi swept the Staff under Kouji's feet and shoved his shoulder to send him tumbling through the door. In the same moment, Riku slammed all of his weight against Sora, knocking the Keyblade master in as well.
The Heartless leapt at them en masse, but they weren't fast enough. Before Sora and Kouji even hit the ground, Kouichi and Riku slammed their backs against the massive doors, pushing them closed even as they summoned spells to fend the beasts off.
The click of a lock falling into place echoed through the endless darkness.
( - )
He was in control.