AN: Hnn…been a couple of months. That's just how these things go, no? Thankfully—gloriously, euphorically—I have bought and finished Kingdom Hearts II. As a result, inspiration and ideas—and some stuff that I feel I should include, due to its sheer awesomeness—is going to start filtering down into this fanfic. Nothing major, of course, considering this is about as AU as one can get. However, there will be things here and there. For example, the last line in this chapter.

It couldn't be helped, really. They put is so much more eloquently and succinctly than I, so I just had to borrow the line. :3

……………

Reign of Dreams

By

Rem-chan

……………

"Don't it feel like the wind is always howlin'?

Don't it feel like there's never any light?"

…"It's a Hard-Knock Life", Annie

……………

Chapter VII: Monstrous and Empty

Wakka struggled out of the thick greenery with a grin on his face, various bits and twigs sticking out of his hair. He was a little bruised and battered, sure, but he'd managed to catch the Blitzball anyway, and his trophy was tucked under one arm. The younger brother he might have been, but there wasn't a toss that Cielo could try that he couldn't catch. Triumphantly, he strutted back out onto the beach, though he paused, looking up and squinting a bit.

"…wow, it got cloudy fast, ya?" He said, half worried, half amused. It hardly ever got cloudy this time of year; most precipitation liked to swing up north. More than that, however, was that he was pretty sure that there hadn't been any clouds at all when he'd dove into the trees after the ball. It just wasn't possible for them to dot the sky so quickly, especially when there wasn't…

"…okay. Now I know something be goin' on," Wakka commented with a frown, and glanced further up the sand belt. Instantaneous clouds were one thing. A chill wind rushing across the tropical sea was quite something else. "What do ya…think…bro…?"

Wakka didn't get a chance to speak again. There came a hiss and a rush of air, and something sleek and fast with sharp wings and glowing eyes but bearing his brother's face came down upon him. He was dead before he hit the sand.

The sky above went black.

……………

How Kairi got conned into taking the guided tour on the way back, she'd never know. Maybe it was because she had so enjoyed the company of the Blades, or maybe because she really had no idea how to get back to the banquet hall. Either way, Zack was cheerfully striding a few steps ahead of her; Serge and Fayt had both gone to get cleaned up after their practice session, though Serge had promised to come visit her again before she left the Bastion. Zack had suggested that Albel come along on the 'tour', to which Albel had only responded with a deadpan stare, expression unamused. Thusly, it was just her and the Light Blade Captain, though Kairi was already quite at ease with him. Open, cheerful, confident, and funny, he was the perfect company, even if he seemed to enjoy talking quite a bit.

"This time of year the Bastion is full of people, actually. The government moves in cycles and we're in the middle of a three month long 'public advancement' cycle, which basically means anyone who wants to petition for anything comes on down. Some even travel from halfway around the world," Zack was currently informing her, weaving easily through the surprisingly thick crowds of people that conjugated in this hallway. Though thoroughfare might have been a better word; how this place could have existed, Kairi didn't know, but she could swear a miniature city had been hidden inside Hollow Bastion.

It was entirely possible for her house to be duplicated ten or fifteen times, each clone placed right next to each other one after another, and still leave walking room on either side. Shops and other long—though thinner—roads broke off from the main street, the 'sky' above really a collection of multiple floors, floating platforms, archways and twining ornamentation, all topped by a roof of pale, nearly transparent peach-colored glass high, high above. The voices of literally thousands of people created a constant rumble of sound all around her, very nearly vibrating her bones, the colors flashed from all directions, store fronts and clothing and sculptures and all manner of things she couldn't possibly identify.

A town within a castle within a city within a country within a single, unified world…it very nearly overwhelmed her, though Kairi was doing her best to resist the tide of unease rising in her chest. She still had a 'job' to do, at least in some part. Faint traces of doubt lingered concerning the absolute truth of what Reena had said, but she no doubt had serious proof of it. So the real problem was figuring out how to deal with it. Kairi was aware that she'd been rash when she had run off before; fleeing from a tough situation never helped anything, so better to go and deal with it, even if she wasn't very sure how at this point.

"…and I like cheese on my crackers and the socks I'm wearing don't match and I have a mole on my left butt cheek and I take it you're paying attention now, mm hmm?"

Kairi blinked.

oops.

Flustered, she hastily answered. "I'm so sorry! I…um, I was thinking…"

Zack, rather than being angry, only grinned. "I figured. But hey, most of this stuff is pretty boring. The basics of the Bastion go more like this: it's big. A lot of people equal a lot of different opinions. So getting anything done takes forever, and there's red tape and hidden complexities like you wouldn't believe."

That gave Kairi pause and, though Zack was looking ahead again, cheerfully leading the way through the crowd once more, she suspected he had been paying very close attention to her. Kairi didn't like to think of herself as an open book, but Zack was shrewder than he let on. If she took what he said a bit more literally, it meant that however this was to be resolved was going to take a while, and wouldn't be pretty. Maybe not necessarily because of Reena herself or what she wanted, but because of the state of things on this world in general.

Unity comes at the price of freedom. You can't do everything you used to, and there are more than just your own interests to be concerned with in every situation.

Helpful advice indeed.

This time, she caught it when Zack glanced back at her, and returned his faint smile. "Glad to see you're keeping up, Kairi. We're taking the long way back to the administrative area of the Bastion, but I'm sure you don't mind. We can stop by the research section on the way, if you'd like to talk to Dr. Uzuki again."

Kairi's smile broadened almost of its own violation. "That would be nice. I take it you know him pretty well?"

"I know the people he works with more, but yeah," Zack actually grimaced after a moment. "Though some are better than others. It can't be helped, I suppose…"

"Hmm?" Kairi tilted her head, confused. "What can't be helped?"

Zack sighed, rubbing a hand through his hair as they turned down one of the 'side' streets, approaching what Kairi recognized as a more ornate version of the usual Hollow Bastion lifts. "One of the research floors is still under renovation. So two departments are using the same lab space: technological and biological. Dr. Uzuki is in the technology department, but, uh…" He grimaced again. "You'll see, I guess. If we're lucky he won't be there."

Kairi was more confused than ever, but she chose not to comment. She would find out when they got there, she supposed, and she chose to simply watch her surroundings as they continued, taking in the spectacle. She would certainly have stories to tell to Sora and Riku when she got home.

I hope…they're doing alright, too. Nothing too serious.

She sighed mentally, fingers playing with the hem of her skirt. It was easy to forget; forget how much they'd gone through, what it meant. Their lives weren't 'normal' anymore and would never be so again, no matter how they might act. Sora did his best to remain the cheerful, brightly smiling child, but Kairi would remember from time to time that those days were over. It was nice to see it in him, and they were both aware that they were comforted by it, but it wouldn't last forever. Things changed, time rolled forward, and they became new and different people as each day passed.

still. Still, we've had enough. We won. We should be allowed to rest now.

Kairi set her jaw, jogging a little to catch up with Zack as he reached the lift. This place was overwhelming, yes. And there was probably a lot more to what Reena had been saying than what Kairi had thought the first time. But she would not let it change what had become the truth: they were done, and they would always go home in the end. She believed—she knew—that Sora and Riku thought the same, though Riku was more at ease with the world than they.

The bottom line was that they wouldn't let anything take their happiness away.

……………

"Brother, are you putting on weight?"

"…I'm rather offended by that question."

A tall, slender young man with dark hair and gleaming green armor smiled affably. "You know I don't mean anything by it. Just a harmless question."

His shorter and equally dark-haired older brother frowned at him, a hand on the rich crimson stomach of his own armor. "Well, I'm not. So stop asking."

His brother chuckled, though his expression grew faintly serious. "Actually, I meant that honestly. Your face is a little heavier-looking."

The elder's frown increased. "Really? I'd actually…noticed that myself. But only this morning."

They were silent for a few moments, mulling this information over. Their positions demanded that they be in nearly perfect physical condition. They were charged with protecting the ruler of their kingdom at all times, and being overweight was not something they could allow themselves to become.

"I'll look into it when we get back," the elder finally stated, shaking his head.

"If that's alright…," the younger started to say, but was interrupted as one of the Bastion guards came up to them, bowing low and speaking quickly.

"I-I'm sorry, Sirs, b…but she's already left."

Both brothers stared, though it was the younger who blurted out his reaction first. "What? She only arrived this morning! She has been in the council meeting room all day!"

The guard swallowed, standing straight again, looking obviously nervous. He had good reason; you didn't want to tell the protectors of an entire kingdom that their main charge was missing.

"W-We don't know what happened, but she never came in! Wherever she is, she's not in this castle."

The elder scowled, voice harsh. It wasn't often that Mario got angry, but when he did, it was not something anyone wished to face. His brother Luigi, standing beside him, face equally stony, knew this quite well.

"But how could Princess Peach be in another castle?"

……………

"Ah, Captain Faolan. How wonderful to see you."

Zack was grimacing again. "Sorry it isn't mutual. Is Dr. Uzuki here?"

"Why do you want to see him?" Asked the man in the impeccable white lab coat, greasy-looking hair pulled back into a ponytail, eyeing Zack and Kairi over the top of his round spectacles. His complexion was oddly sallow, as though he had once had a tan but had let it waste away during long hours spent inside. The eyes that watched her were dark, murky, and she decided at once that she didn't care for him at all.

"That's really none of your business, Hojo," Zack said affably, though his eyes were glaring.

"Is that so?"

Overall, she didn't much care for this place, either. It was just as she would have thought a laboratory would have looked like, though styled after the bastion. The colors were a soft gold and silver and peach, fragile-looking metal and glass gleaming in the light coming in from the high, thin windows. There was a decidedly sterile scent in the air, burning the inside of her nose, and the long tables that took up the majority of the space were laden with devices and chemicals and contraptions that she couldn't really fathom even if she tried.

The centerpiece of this part of the room, however, was a cube of clear, gleaming glass upraised on a small platform. It was maybe twelve feet across on each face, and fifteen feet high. Within it were a desk and chair, a bed, and a small, curtained-off area, apparently for privacy purposes. Everything was a pristine white, as sterile as the rest of the room, but it was obviously meant to be used, a book open on the desk.

There was someone curled under the covers of the bed, white sheets slowly rising and falling as they breathed.

"Why is someone in there?" Kairi spoke up, voice carefully neutral. If it was what she thought it was…

Hojo gave her a placid smile. "It is a specimen."

"His name is Naoki," Zack spat at once, giving Hojo the dirtiest look so far. "And the only reason he's in there is because Hikawa used his damn majority monopoly in the council hearing."

Hojo's smile didn't fade, and Kairi was confused, besides just angry. They were keeping a person in there. She resisted a glare—rudeness probably wouldn't earn her answers—and asked again. "But why is he in there?"

Murky eyes gleamed in an almost mocking manner, and Hojo gestured with a hand. "Why don't I show you? It's time he awoke, anyway."

With that, he stepped up to the glass and gave it a sharp tap, the sound surprisingly loud in the otherwise still air. The lump in the sheets jerked, seemed to deflate, and pushed up into a sitting position, white fabric falling to the side. Kairi stared.

"What do you want, Hojo?" The young man with rumpled dark hair and gleaming golden eyes asked with some annoyance. He wouldn't have been so out of the ordinary, really—Zack had gold eyes, so maybe it was common on this world—if not for the tattoos…or whatever they were. Geometric and symmetrical, black, curving, spiked lines and circles and squares in an obvious pattern covered the whole of his body, or at least however much of his body that Kairi could see. Bordering the black markings were much thinner lines of a bluish green that were actually glowing, casting a faint, eerie light on the glass.

a specimen, he said.

"Why, a young lady asked about you," Hojo said with a mocking smile, gesturing lightly at Kairi. "Quite a precedent, isn't it?"

The young man—he was maybe Riku's age—gave Hojo the same kind of glare Zack had. "Excuse me if I can't express my uncontrollable euphoria."

"Oh? Such a shame."

"So!" Zack said a bit loudly, a brilliant smile on his face, though Kairi didn't miss how his fist was clenching and unclenching. He slung an arm around her shoulders, turning her to face the glass. "Kairi, this is Naoki. Naoki, Kairi."

The glare faded and Naoki nodded, smiling a bit tiredly and lifting a faintly glowing hand in greeting. "Hi. Come to see the freak show?"

Kairi opened her mouth immediately to say otherwise, but Zack beat her to it, giving Naoki a disapproving frown. "Do you need me to come in there and smack you? I won't have you learning Hojo-isms through osmosis."

Hojo was the one to make the disapproving frown now, but Naoki actually laughed a little, leaning back in his bed, giving Kairi a better view of the markings traveling down his stomach and disappearing into the black shorts he wore. Hojo looked even more disapproving. "That is quite enough, Captain Faolan. I won't have you influencing my subject."

Zack's arm dropped from Kairi's shoulders as the man turned to face the other, expression getting that serious look again. Not a dangerous look, but one that could easily become dangerous, should the occasion call for it. "Your 'subject' wouldn't be here if not for petty politics. Hikawa wanted to look good for the people back in his home kingdom, so he removed a 'demon' and gave him to you. He's no more demon than I am."

Hojo glared for half a moment more, then smirked, something odd flashing in his eyes. "You would be surprised at the truth of that last statement, Captain."

Something about the way he said it must have struck a cord with Zack, as the dark-haired man immediately stiffened, expression making the shift from warning to openly threatening. "That…has nothing to do with demons, either."

"How interesting," Hojo replied affably, unruffled in any way. "Your opinion is not shared by the majority of the people in the Bastion. I wonder why…?"

"Maybe because the truth wasn't distorted by the media or swept under the rug by the government before he became aware of it," Naoki snapped, having moved from the bed to stand directly on the other side of the glass, fists tight at his sides.

The look Hojo gave Naoki was more disdainful rather than smirky, like one would glance at a disobedient puppy. "…hn. I see the Captain has been coming to visit you when I am not present."

There was no way Kairi could miss the tension slowly building as the conversation went on, and she knew she would have to intervene somehow. Even if, really, she had no idea what was going on. They were referring to something, she knew, something that had happened in the Bastion…something big. But it was just one more thing that she had never known, and never cared about, and never would have, if she had not come here and learned that she did indeed have some deeper connection to this world.

Did she even have a right to interfere…? What could she do, in the end? It was with an odd lurch in her stomach that Kairi realized that, if she ever really wanted to make a difference, even in a contained situation like this, she would have to know more. She'd have to stay here, learn the history, the politics, the people, the great, wide world beyond this one castle. And she would have to admit to being part of the Tycoon family.

After all, they were members of the council, weren't they? The highest position of all…

what am I thinking? I don't know anything, and it'd take years to learn. This…I don't belong here. I'll listen to Reena, see what she has to say, but…

Kairi supposed her decision was already made. Above all, she just wanted to go home. Back to the simple island, and simple life. Back to the friends that needed her, and that she needed in turn. Even if, as she watched the three in front of her, she felt the need, distant and strong, to do something.

Even if…there's nothing I can really do…

…nothing…

…nothing…

Maybe all it took was the thought. The implication of it. The passing, phantom-like sensation of nothingness. As if the awareness of it had always been there, and she had but to think on it to realize that one small thing that she had been missing. Except…it was not so small. Not so small at all.

However, her scream came a second too late, a deep, guttural laugh full of madness emerging from Hojo's throat as everything, all at once, changed.

……………

It was easy enough to see that something was wrong. The constantly crowded, teeming thoroughfares of the main section of the Bastion were empty, totally and completely devoid of life. Shops still had their wares out front, fresh meals lingered on the tables of the numerous cafés, and, as he watched, a small, slow-moving hover cart crashed into a pile of rubbish. It was almost as though everyone, in an instant, had disappeared.

Despite years of training, of conflict and constant battle, a cold knot of fear settled in his stomach. Something was terribly, horribly wrong, more so now than ever. She had had gone missing only twenty minutes before, and he had emerged from the more secluded hallways to this

Yes. Yes, it meant there was fear. A great deal of it. Yet he fought it off as best he could, breaking into an even run, sky blue eyes scanning every walkway, every cobbled street, every nook and cranny. He knew she was strong, as she always had been, and in his heart of hearts he believed that she would not have succumbed to whatever had stolen all the others away. It was that belief that gave him the strength to continue forward, grip tight on the hilt of his sword.

But it wasn't to remain so. Abruptly, so suddenly that it took his breath away, a piercing, fire-like pain lanced into his left hand, agony sweeping up his arm as he dropped his weapon. He grabbed his wrist with his other hand and screamed, unable to do anything else, dropping to his knees when a brilliant golden light blazed from the back of his hand.

Even through the pain, he was able to catch a glimpse of what was searing across his skin and clothing: three triangles joined at the corners. One was brighter than the others, burned more fiercely; the one on the lower left.

He didn't understand. And yet, at the same time, he did. A new kind of understanding was blossoming in his mind. He could feel her now, and…another as well. Something darker at the edge of his senses. Something he both knew and did not know. The only thing he could be certain of was that it was the enemy.

The light began to lessen, though the mark remained on the back of his hand, and Link bent to retrieve his sword, staggering up again and continuing forward. He would find Zelda, or die trying.

He didn't notice the man with the strange, dark green skin and glowing eyes watching him from the shadows.

……………

Where Hojo had stood was a writhing mass of flesh, bloated and painted in a variety of thick, sickly colors. He still had a vaguely human shape, but his legs seemed to melt together, exposed, salmon pink and mottled green muscles and tendons twisting around one another, hitting the floor and spreading like a brackish puddle of rotted skin and meat. An orb of blood red pulsed and shone in the region of his chest, membranes tight across it to keep it in place as the rest of him continued to mutate. One arm sagged and fell under its own weight, dragging a pus-oozing wrist as thick as a log along the floor as he twitched and jerked. The other arm stretched up, gnarled like a branch, purplish skin giving way to great, spiked bones in dirty yellow, like old teeth, each one flexing like fingers.

His face…he still had one, but there was nothing human to it now. His cheeks stretched and snapped, tucking back so that his jaw gaped like a cavernous hole, nightmarish teeth jerking up, higher and higher, until they pierced the roof of his mouth to form a ring around the tiny, brightly glowing pits of his eyes. Scraggly tufts of hair poked out at odd angles on the crown of his head, accented by the humps of flesh and spikes of bone jutting out of his neck. From the pit of his mouth lolled a fiendish tongue, pitted red like old blood, saliva that hissed and ate holes into the floor dripping from its tip.

Yet what frightened Kairi was the laugh. It was a groaning, inhuman sound, alternatingly low and high, continuing on and on without breath as Hojo twitched and jerked and watched them with a demon's eyes.

Kairi's chest was burning terribly and she realized she was still screaming. She had never been full of herself, but somehow, distantly, she realized that all the bravery she'd thought she had wasn't so deep after all. She couldn't move. Not an inch, nothing more than trembling. Frozen in spot, eyes wide, staring in horror, utter disbelief, and fear as a thing out of the deepest pit lurched towards her, stinking hands closing around her shoulders, her neck, her head.

The screams that tore at her throat abruptly cut off. Kairi's breath was lost and she couldn't get it back again, heart stopping in her chest as oily skin and crusted bone squeezed.

It's got me IT'S GOT ME!

SORA!

Then, with the same sudden speed as her lost voice, the grotesque arms were torn away from her, Hojo flying back as Zack slammed into him shoulder first. Even such brief contact had its consequences and Kairi heard flesh sizzle as Hojo's tongue flopped and scattered a trail of acidic spit all down Zack's left arm and shoulder. But the Blade Captain didn't even flinch and pulled back to slam again, the force great enough to send Hojo skidding back several more feet.

The laugh choked off with a gurgle, then morphed into a grating, thundering roar that caused Kairi's very bones to quake.

"Kairi, Kairi!"

Kairi could breathe again and she sucked in deep lungfuls of air, backing up a step as Zack shouted over his shoulder at her, still turned to face the quickly recovering monster Hojo had become. He was protecting her, guarding her from the nightmarish creature while she'd been too frightened to budge an inch.

Shame twisted in her stomach even as she fought to focus.

"Get back out into the hall!" Zack continued, fists up in a fighting stance as Hojo advanced again.

"But what about you?" She shouted back, voice terribly small compared to the guttural sounds that wouldn't stop.

"Just go!"

"Oh, for the love of--!"

Kairi turned her head just in time to see Naoki pull back a fist, golden eyes flashing with an inhuman glow, and the glass wall between them was suddenly shattering into millions of pieces. She couldn't keep from gaping as he leapt over the glittering mess that had once been his prison, landing between Zack and Hojo. Zack seemed just as surprised as Kairi, but it was only a momentary thing, the Blade Captain's eyes grow steely, narrowing and tightening as he obviously worked through what Naoki intended to do.

"Let me handle this," Naoki told them in a low voice, hands clenching and unclenching, claw-like one moment, hardened fists the next. "Something's wrong…you need to get her out of here."

Zack took a long second to decide, difficult decisions flickering across his expression with astonishing speed, and then he nodded tightly. What surprised Kairi, though, was the grin that followed.

"Give him a good one for me, alright?"

Naoki mirrored his expression, a fearsome levity that looked as though it could stand up to anything. He grinned right back, and a distant part of Kairi stared at the sharpened canines that flashed.

"You know I will."

Abruptly, she realized that they were in serious danger because of her. Zack had taken her, the tourist, on the tour to begin with, and now this strange young man was facing that…that thing

No, I have to…do something…

…but what?

However, before she could do more than open her mouth to protest, Zack spun around and grabbed her arm, charging for the door. "We're out of here!"

She nearly stumbled, sliding on the slick floor as they sped out the door, chest tightening painfully as she heard another roar from behind them, followed by a young voice yelling out a sharp battle cry. The sound of something sizzling, a heavy weight crashing into the wall with incredible force, bones snapping, and laugh and a cry and something wet and soft flopping to the floor in splashes of what had to be blood…

Then they were too far away to hear any more and Kairi at last paid attention to her surroundings, her fear only growing at what she saw. It was dark, darker than nightmares. Every window they passed was black. Not from clouds, or a storm, just black upon black upon black, as if someone had painted over the glass with inky colors. Doors and walls were torn in, or outwards, rubble and debris scattered across the hallways and corridors, fires burning in rooms and along the ceiling, the flames themselves somehow fragile and dim in the face of the blackness beyond the Bastion.

But more than the structure was damaged. Far, far more. Within the burning rooms, tossed about the scorched and crater-marked floor, were bodies. Dozens. Hundreds. People of all shapes and sizes, men, women, children…all dead. There were no wounded. In most cases, there were hardly any corpses. Just…pieces. Arms and legs lying prone, discarded manikin limbs that oozed blood. Smaller things, like ears or fingers, sometimes just hunks of flesh, a bone or two protruding out from the skin. Intestines, flung out along the floor like some grisly red carpet.

Kairi felt her mind closing down. This…she couldn't watch this. Yet she was. Her eyes burned from the heat of the fires, her muscles aching from the pace of their run, chest heaving, full of agony, as she fought to breathe without inhaling the scent of charred and cooked flesh, the smell of blood so thick she may as well have been inhaling clouds of it.

If it wasn't for Zack's hand, tight around her wrist, she might have just collapsed and been sick all over the floor. As it was, the bile kept rising in her throat, causing her to gag and retch despite her best efforts, and she stumbled for what felt like the thousandth time, nearly causing Zack to lose his grip.

It was an incident that cost them.

Thunder cracked the air and the entire wall to their left—a good distance away as they sprinted through what might have once been a ballroom—was simply blown inwards, stone and mortar flying. A wayward piece dug into her ribs, something snapping cleanly, and pain stole her breath away, but she didn't have time to be injured. From the gaping hole crawled another monstrous creature, though it was more recognizable than Hojo had been.

A spider. It was a spider. But so huge it took up more than half the room, immense as the room was. Built like a tarantula, but with skin like rock, the joints and stomach pitted inward, so that the majority of the skin slid over a molten fire underneath. Whatever the gigantic, clawed legs touched or brushed against immediately burst into flames, stone sagging and melting beneath it as it moved. It glowed, lighting up the room, though its eyes…there was no light there. Not even the gleam of it. Just pools of darkness, swallowing her horrified gaze.

No…no…

"Damnit," Zack cursed under his breath, body tight, very nearly vibrating with tension. The training outfit he wore was stained with soot and blood, and Kairi knew he needed a weapon. But there were none, and there was no way they could make it back to the training hall, or to wherever his usual weapon was kept.

She was shaking again. Or maybe she had been since back in the lab. She couldn't stop, no matter how she tried…

"When I tell you, make a break for that door," the Blade Captain murmured in a steady voice, expression slowly composing itself into deadly calm. Somehow, that only scared her more. "Run as fast as you can, and don't look back."

"But…"

"No buts. We can't let anything happen to you. Just do as I say, alright?"

There was nothing Kairi could say to that. But how she wished there was.

I…I should be able to do something! Why can't I?

Why?

Then there was no more time for thought, Zack shoving her hard in the direction of a small side door in the wall immediately to their right, and he was gone, charging an enemy he had no hope of defeating.

This isn't fair!

"Stop playin' the hero, spiky! Hurts my ears!"

Something—two somethings—blasted past Kairi in a flash of red and metallic orange, blowing her hair back and knocking her onto her rear. Another flash of pain stabbed into her chest from the region of her ribs, but suddenly someone else was there, a gentle hand on her shoulder.

"Are you hurt, Kairi?"

"Citan!" Kairi couldn't help the shock in her voice, nor the wave of relief that nearly overcame her a moment later. Her hands shook, and a knot of emotion grew in her throat, but she hardly minded it at all. "Y-You're alright…"

"For the moment," Citan responded with a small smile, taking Kairi's hands and pulling her to her feet, expression growing serious again a second later. "We need to escape the Bastion. Now."

She was about to wholeheartedly agree when an explosion rocked the area and she was blown off her feet a second time, though her fall was softened by the fact that she landed on top of Citan. It didn't help the pain that was gradually increasing, but she ignored it for the moment, dragging herself off him and turning, eyes widening at the battle raging directly behind them.

Zack, lacking a weapon, was darting back and forth with that speed he had displayed earlier, only increased, a white blur blazing across the floor, catching the spider's attention again and again, drawing its focus away from the other two fighters. Focusing now, Kairi could make them out as they moved; nearest was a man of Zack's height and build, but dressed far differently. A red coat over a leather shirt and a pair of leather pants, both black, heavy boots giving him the traction and protection he needed to leap up onto the spider, slashing with a huge, ornate sword. Kairi caught, briefly, the wild, thrilled grin on the man's face, short, white-silver hair gleaming in the firelight.

The other…Kairi didn't know what to think. The person, whoever they were, were encased in armor, but an armor unlike any she had ever seen before. The dominant color over the slender torso and down onto the thighs was yellow, the legs and arms shifting to that metallic orange. The lower right arm was encased in a projectile weapon of some kind, and both shoulders bore large spheres bigger than the helmet. The helmet itself broke from the color scheme to be a deep, rich red, a slanted, elegant visor in a crystalline green seeming to glow from within.

is that a robot? Kairi thought dumbly, but Citan's hand was on her shoulder again, dragging her towards the door. "We have to leave!"

"But, they…!" She cried, protesting a second time as others were left behind to fight what felt like her battle. It wasn't right, it wasn't fair!

But there was little fairness left in this world and, without warning, a wave of fire rippled outwards from the spider's body, knocking Zack and the others in all directions. Kairi and Citan barely managed to avoid getting crushed by Zack, who hit with enough force to crack the stone floor. However, all Zack did was grunt in pain and lurch back to his feet, nursing a leg but obviously ready for another go. The armored person—and/or robot—was at his side, the silver-haired man at the far end of the room.

Before Kairi could even blink, they were moving again, launching themselves fearlessly at a creature that spewed fire and magma, slick trails of super-heated oil dripping from fangs as big as she was. As she watched, the man in red took a glancing hit across his back from one of the massive legs, the cloth of his coat and a deeper, wetter crimson flying outwards. Zack was there in an instant to push him out of the way of a second attack, though his weak leg cost him, crumpling beneath him as he tried to dodge a stream of fire. He fell and, this time, wasn't able to get to his feet again. The last of the three leapt to their defense, bursts of concentrated light flaring out from the gun arm, but it would only last so long…

Kairi didn't know what to do.

It's not…fair…

But she knew that she couldn't stand there and do nothing.

It's not FAIR.

Afterwards, she was never really able to explain why she thought to do it, of all things, but her hand fumbled at her pocket, fingers closing around the small, leaf-like whistle Cielo had given her. Brain working almost on autopilot, she forced her trembling hands to bring the dyaus pipe to her mouth. Her throat was tight, dry to the point of pain from the heat and the panic, but she sucked in a gasping breath just the same, eyes squeezing shut as she blew as hard as she could.

Always remember to add a little of your heart…

She put everything into it. The terror, the helplessness, the worry and fear and dread and guilt and hope that somehow, someway, they could make it through this. She couldn't let anyone die. Not like this, not this way, not because she had failed to do her part, to be more than just the princess standing behind the knight. What she actually was capable of, she wasn't so sure of anymore…but that didn't mean she couldn't try.

Please…please! Please, stop fighting them…

Kairi willed the words to be carried through the high, shrill, yet somehow melodic note that went on and on, her breath unceasing even as her chest burned. One hand kept the pipe pressed against her lips, while the other slowly extended, fingertips trembling. From fear, exhaustion, and whatever else, but she extended it just the same, an offer for friendship, a plea for mercy.

Her heart nearly stopped when the beast grew still, shifted, and then turned, eyes full of darkness settling on her.

It's working…it's working!

Desperate hope making her bold, Kairi paused only long enough to find another breath and blew again, pipe nearly vibrating from the effort. She extended her hand further, eyes flicking to the side, catching sight of the robot helping Zack to his feet, the red-coated man waving off any assistance, the flow of blood from his back already stopped. She could feel Citan at her back, probably frozen with astonishment at the sight of the spider taking one slow, ponderous step towards her, the swirling fire beneath its skin slowing.

Just a little more…just a little…please…

The vibration from the pipe was increasing in intensity. She could feel it against her lips, shuddering down through her jaw. It worried her, but Kairi was more than aware that she couldn't stop. She met those terrible eyes with her own, fighting off the chill. It was working…it was working…they were…

Please…

She heard something crack. Then again, and something sharp cut into her chin and fingers. Then the last time, and the pipe beneath her fingers shattered, fragments flickering like pale green starfire as they flew in all directions.

NO.

……………

"We've evacuated what's left of the population," said a severe, grim-looking man in combat fatigues, the pattern dark, yet oddly tinted with red and bronze. For the work he did, it was perfect of night missions in the city. He'd been on one such mission when the "attack" had come and, while stealth no longer had any use, he probably hadn't had time to change. "The only gummi ships we couldn't use were the Losstarot and the Guildenstern."

"And that would be because they're blocked off," Aerith finished for him with a sigh, eyes closing briefly in weariness. A catastrophe where the cruiser-class ships would have been a godsend, and they hadn't been able to reach them. It was impossible to travel any distance through Hollow Bastion now without serious loss of life, and reaching the tower landing pads? Impossible. But she didn't have time to let the loss affect her. Opening her eyes again, she gave the man a curt nod. "Thank you, Commander Snake. Take the Shera with Professor Cid and get the rest of the civilians off the planet. The Captain and I will take the last ship."

The commander nodded his understanding and gave her a sharp salute, then was gone the next moment. Aerith didn't even see the door to the library open and close, but that was to be expected from a stealth operative. It garnered a smile from her, but the expression disappeared in the next moment as she went back to work, quickly placing books – books they couldn't afford to lose, not again – into a box, Cloud working diligently beside her.

"You should've gotten out a long time ago," Cloud told her in a neutral voice, already aware he would lose the argument.

"What, with the rest of the politicians and royalty?" She demanded in an offended tone, though she smiled at the same time. "Thanks, but I can take care of mys—"

There wasn't any warning. None. One moment she was alive and smiling at him, and in the next she was slumping against the table, body as limp as a ragdoll's. Blood spread out along her back, dripping onto the floor, the source a neat, slender hole in her midsection that had not been there a moment before.

Cloud would have reacted. Would have, had he not collapsed himself, still alive, but awash with a pain the likes of which he had never felt before. It tore his veins, into his brain, a liquid, arctic chill so cold it burned, all-consuming, terrible. Mako, something whispered to him, and he knew at once that it was right.

But as for what Mako was…he did not know.

……………

"Go, go! I'll take care of this!"

"No, you IDIOT! You can't handle that on your own!"

"Too late to argue, spiky! Get to the north tower! Your gay friend's getting one of the ships ready!"

They were running again. Not Kairi herself, but their little rag-tag group. Citan was carrying her in his arms, Kairi's shaking hands clenching in the stained green fabric of his tunic. Out of the corner of her eye she could see the robot with Zack's arm slung over its shoulder, supporting the Blade Captain as they hurried down the hall with as much speed as they could muster. The silver-haired man was not with them. No, he'd stayed behind, cut off from them as the spider had roared its fury the moment Kairi's pipe had shattered. It had turned with terrible speed, raised front legs crashing through the ceiling, debris and molten fire thundering down to cut them off from the red-clad fighter. Rather than attempting to break through the barrier, the man had instead charged the monster, then past it, into a door on the opposite side of the room. The creature had charged after him.

Now it was just the four of them. Running and running, down corridors and up stairs in a maze of twists and turns that Kairi hardly bothered to pay attention to. This…it was madness. Pure madness. Her stomach twisted in strange, painful knots, the ache from her ribs increasing by the moment, throat tight and torn from the tears she refused to shed. She was glad that Citan was carrying her, well aware that there was no way she would be able to run on her own.

Truthfully, Kairi hardly wanted to think at all. She'd tried, she'd tried…but it hadn't worked. They'd lost someone anyway, and now she had nothing, no way to fight back. As a Princess of Heart, she should have, but no part of her could remember how to fight, or even what was at her disposal.

What happened to me? Did I…get soft, thinking we were safe? Did I let myself forget…?

There was a touch of bitterness at the back of her mind. What did the worlds expect of her? They'd won, they'd gone home…why did she have to remember how to fight? Why did she—and Sora, and Riku—always have to be at the universe's beck and call? They were their own people, they had their own lives, couldn't they just live them?

Judging from the carnage all around her, Kairi could only assume that the answer was no.

"We're almost there," Citan said suddenly, to her and to the others. "Captain Nox was prepping the Losstarot for departure when we went to look for survivors."

"Albel's alright?" Kairi could easily hear the relief in Zack's voice.

"More than alright, I would think," Citan said, a tiny smile on his face despite the dire situation. "But we have to hurry. It's our only means of escape. Lady Gainsborough was organizing an evacuation, but the south wing collapsed and cut us off."

"So the cruisers are our only way out of here," Zack replied, a bemused tone in his weary voice. "Guess if we all live through this, you'll get that extra grant to continue production."

"Oh, possibly."

How they could sound so lighthearted, Kairi didn't know. She just wanted to sleep, to pass out and forget, at least for a little while. But in the next moment, she realized that she couldn't do that. What would Sora and Riku think of her if she did? What would she think of herself? It hurt, all of this did—from injuries and otherwise—but she couldn't stop, could she? Some…some of them were still alive, and if they could escape…then she could still stand and do that. She could.

Just like she could ignore the fear deep within her heart that one day she wouldn't be able to. That one day she'd fall, and there would be nothing she could do about it. Even now, she couldn't convince her heart of the supposed truth. She'd stand, she'd keep moving…but it was a fallacy, a mask she was determinedly setting into place.

"There's the exit!" Zack shouted, and Kairi followed his gaze to the far end of the corridor, tall double doors hanging open to reveal a landing pad she'd seen upon her arrival. It wasn't what drew her attention, however, nor did the sleek, familiar shape of the Losstarot upon it.

What she had seen in the windows had been nothing compared to this. As they approached, the glassy darkness of the outside gained shapes in its bowels, the great skyscrapers of the city reduced to wispy echoes of their former selves. Everything was tinted the shade of midnight, the only dismal light the faint flickers of what she could only assume were hearts and souls, slowly dying, fading, crushed by an all-consuming abyss that suffocated the fabric of the world. As they charged through the door, a wave of absence swept over her, causing Kairi to shudder violently, her too-sensitive heart groaning from some unknown agony.

She had expected it to be cold. She had expected it to be oppressive, intrusive, some terrible, silent invader out to consume all that she was. But…but this was no darkness she knew. In fact…

It didn't feel like darkness at all. Just nothing. A nihilistic cloud of anti-existence, dark only because there was an absence of light. It sickened her, a thick sense of nausea settling into her very bones, animalistic terror clenching in her chest. It was the same feeling she had experienced with Hojo, the paralyzing sense that it, IT had found her and would take her and there was nothing she could do.

"You are late, Faolan."

The shout jerked her out of her thoughts, Kairi staring in disbelief as she realized that they had approached the ship, Albel striding quickly over, looking a bit the worse for wear by otherwise in one piece.

"Heh, got held up," Zack responded with a weary grin, still supported by the robot's shoulder.

"Why am I not surprised?" Albel replied with a scowl, though there was something else in his expression that was not anger. "The ship's ready to take off at any time. The last communication we got from the castle reported that the remaining survivors had already left."

"Then we had best get going," Citan was already making his way towards the main ramp of the Losstarot, stepping up onto it with Kairi still in his arms.

"Wait up!"

There was a round of startled jumps—the robot leveling its weapon and Albel reaching at his side for his sword—but the voice was revealed to be Fayt, jogging as fast as he could out of the door carrying someone on his back. Kairi, in spite of herself, felt her eyes widen. Reena, clinging to Fayt's shoulders with determined exhaustion, met her gaze, equally surprised. But there was no time for pleasant reunions.

In the next few moments, there really wasn't time for anything at all.

"Serge is right behind me!" Fayt shouted again, halfway between the door and the ship. "He just had to—"

Fayt didn't get to finish, abruptly knocked off his feet by a blur of blue and black and gleaming, golden eyes that were slanted and slitted, a panther's gaze glaring out from deep shadow. The apprentice fell, taking Reena with him, and they both cried out as they hit the ground hard, bumping and skidding from the force of the blow. Kairi saw a splash of red spread out across the ground and her heart jumped into her throat, that now-familiar fear intensifying tenfold as that shadow came to a stop, hunched but standing on two legs, glaring at them all with an empty, hungry madness.

It had Serge's face. His hair was longer, fringed in gray and white and black, more like fur than hair, and his ears were pointed, inching up along his head. His clothing was torn, split at the seams from where his body had grown, taller now than he had been before, curled fingers tipped with claws. And he was still changing, the air around him convulsing, altering, fur and muscles inching and bulging on his body even as he stood still, staring at them as a predator stares at its prey.

Then he leapt, and Kairi didn't have any more time to think. Reena screamed, just rolling aside in time to avoid Serge's frenzied pounce, though he twisted on his heels, diving at her again, mouth gaping open to reveal dagger-sharp teeth. Fayt, eyes wide, expression full of horror and confusion and open panic, lunged at him from behind on pure instinct, arms going around his legs to cut him off. Both of them collapsed to the ground again as Reena stumbled to her feet, making a mad dash for the ship.

The loss of his prey seemed to enrage Serge, the former-boy writhing, roaring, howling, the sounds as inhuman as Hojo's had been. He twisted around, lethal hands lashing out and just missing his brother's neck to instead bury themselves into Fayt's shoulder. The teen screamed in agony as his flesh was ripped to ribbons, Serge cruelly twisting his hands, a kind of insane glee entering his brutal gaze at the sight of the blood.

"STAND DOWN!"

Serge jerked, movement stopping for a split second at that loud, resonating command and it was just enough of an opening for Albel to slam his elbow into his temple, knocking Serge away from his brother. It didn't render him unconscious, however, Serge twisting even as he fell to land and skid to a stop on his own feet, facing the Dark Blade Captain with teeth bared, a sharp snarl cutting the air. Albel faced him squarely, sword in hand, eyes narrowed with determination, though the muscles in his jaw and neck clenched as he spoke.

"Go. Now. Leave him to me."

Kairi had expected Citan or Fayt to be the first to protest. Who did instead shocked her, Zack's yell laced with a tremulousness that was just as unexpected. "No!"

Albel, in contrast, was frighteningly calm. "You have people to protect, Faolan. It won't be the same this time."

"But…!"

Though his back was to them now, Kairi could almost hear the smirk—a grin? A smile?—in Albel's voice. "Just go, fool. I wouldn't mind your help…but I don't need the help of an invalid."

For a reason Kairi couldn't grasp, that somehow got through to Zack, the Light Blade Captain setting his jaw and nodding curtly. Responding to some unsaid signal, the robot moved forward abruptly, sprinting up the ramp, Zack wincing with every step. He didn't protest, instead keeping his eyes on Albel.

Serge's attention snapped to the pair at the movement, and he tensed, body suddenly erupting with motion as he dove forward in pursuit. But Albel moved again, coming between them, sword flashing in the dull light of dying hearts and their souls. Serge responded with a roar that was almost a hiss, changing direction to slam into him instead, the pair descending into a blur of clothing and claws and cutting strikes, blood coloring the air.

Then Citan was turning, heading up the ramp again, and Kairi had no choice but to turn her eyes away, shuddering, thoughts shattered, so very distant now, as they left two more of their own behind.

"Something's wrong!"

I know, I know it…why does this have to happen?

"What? The skies should be clear!"

It's all…it's not the same. Nothing. Everything. I can't…

They were on the bridge now, the viewscreen displaying the nightmare outside. And more…so much more.

"…oh god…"

"Take off, take off!"

"Something's holding us down!"

"But there's nothing there!"

Nothing…nothing…

Kairi wasn't sure if the voice in her head was her own. She concentrated on it, numbly trying to discern who it was. It was better than watching, realizing, accepting the madness that reality had become, the screen displaying a tempest of whirling, heaving existence, buildings and bodies and what was left of life on the world heaving upwards, thrown about as if by giant, monstrous hands. All was bathed in absence, dissolving into naught as it was consumed by something that literally had no name.

Nothing as was began and ended with.

As was given but then was lost.

The Losstarot was the next to heave, the world turning upside down, and Kairi's gaze went dark as a jarring impact robbed her of consciousness.

-The birth by sleep.-

……………

Next Chapter: Unexpected Turns

Characters: Mario, Luigi – Super Mario Bros., Hojo – Final Fantasy VII, Naoki – Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, Link – The Legend of Zelda, Snake – Metal Gear Solid.