Welcome back to CC3! I'm sure you're all very surprised to see this update. So am I. Here's the thing: the first chapter of the original Cheat Code was published to on March 10th, 2005. It was my gateway into writing. It gave me a precious opportunity to practice, as well as plenty of encouragement and critique. Now I'm getting ready to graduate from the University of Michigan with a degree in film production and a sub-concentration in screenwriting, and a lot of thanks is due to the Cheat Code series.
I have hazy plans for the series, but I won't make any promises. Lord knows I've broken them before. I just have one thing to say: happy 10 year anniversary, folks.
… … … … … … … … …
The Senshi stumbled through the last stretch of Lutia Pass. Jake snored lightly from atop Dia's back. Both Sora and Roxas roughly propelled themselves along by using their Keyblades as walking sticks. Sotel crouched by the edge of a dusty cliff and gestured off into the distance with a talon. "That'sss Baguba down there," he said.
Baguba Port loomed in the distance, a cluster of green and turquoise tinted slabs and staircases. A creaky wooden airship rose out of a shimmering garage and whirred melodically as it took to the skies.
Bernie dabbed at her forehead with the sleeve of her jacket, which had been tied around her neck since Roda. "So let me get this straight. Once we get to Baguba, we can beam back up to the Phoenix, then fly back to Radiant Garden?"
"That's the plan," Emma murmured, watching the ascent of a creaky wooden airship. "Let's just hope it's as simple as it sounds."
"I can still smell darkness in this world," Dia reminded her. "If Maleficent hasn't struck already, she must be planning something big."
"What else is new?" Riku grumbled.
A slender green hand curved around Riku's shoulder, pinching his skin with bright pink fingernails. "My, my, such hostility," Maleficent purred. "Surely your time spent with the darkness was not entirely bad."
The Senshi sprang back violently, materializing their weapons. Dia accidentally dropped Jake onto a rock in her haste to grab the Shihaii Wand. "Oww! Watch it, Sis!" Jake mewled, rubbing the welt already forming on his head. As soon as he made eye contact with Maleficent, he summoned the Ikiteiru Shield and curled up behind it. "You stay over there! Or I'll jump on your back again!"
"What are you doing back here?" Emma asked, her fingers coiled around her necklace as a warning.
Maleficent laid her golden scepter among the pebbles at her feet. "Come, I trust you all have the capacity for reason. We have quite the matter to discuss." The Senshi lowered their weapons, but tightened their defensive stances all the more. "There we are."
Loki shook as he limply returned his knife to its sheath. "Who the holy heck is this?"
Emma paused, having momentarily forgotten about the two Clan Dorobou members accompanying them. "Maleficent controls the Heartless. Or thinks she does, at least." She stepped closer to Maleficent and crossed her arms. "Don't you have a war you should be preparing in Hollow Bastion?"
The witch steepled her fingers, smiling grimly. "A doomed war where I lose control of the Heartless to a party of empty husks? I think not." The real-worlders exchanged surprised expressions. "Oh yes, I know about the Battle of a Thousand Heartless. And with that forewarning, I do not care to make a fool of myself."
"So what, you thought you'd lay low in Ivalice?"
"As if I would run from defeat," Maleficent scoffed. "No, I came to petition the prophecy children."
Emma extended a hand to Jake and hauled him up to his feet. "You want us to change the War Sequence so that the Nobodies lose?"
Maleficent polished her ring against her dark robes with an obnoxious mask of innocence. "They are the greater of two evils, are they not?"
"She must be desperate if she called Xemnas greater," Riku snickered.
"The matter is clear as day," Maleficent continued, willling herself not to backhand her former minion. "When Organization XIII takes control of the Heartless, they will have all the fodder they could ever need to fill up their false Kingdom Hearts."
"Not a problem," Emma said. "They still go down in the end. Besides, who even told you about the War Sequence?"
Maleficent smirked and summoned her scepter back to her hand with a flourish of darkness. "A lovely man named Aldwyndain. He tried to chase me out of Hollow Bastion with threats pertaining to my ill fate."
"Why didn't you just bend over and pick up your staff by hand?" Bernie asked.
"The mistress of all evil does not bend over," Maleficent snapped. Jake giggled quietly into the back of his hand. "Now listen well, prophecy children. I bear tasks for all three of you. Should you accept, you may be able to bypass a great deal of suffering."
"Is that a threat?" Sora asked.
"I refer to the suffering of the entire universe. Every last soul in the game. Follow my instructions, and Organization XIII will fall as soon as tonight."
Emma took a deep breath as she stepped closer to Maleficent. "How do we know we can trust you?
"You've played the game. You know that I help return Sora, Donald, and Goofy to their Gummi ship after the Battle of 1000 Heartless, and that I help them fight in the World That Never Was. Kingdom Hearts II provides me with an excellent track record. Follow me, and I will show you what we stand to gain."
"We're going to Hollow Bastion," Jake insisted. "We need to find Mommy."
Maleficent's eyes glinted, and she bowed her head. "That is fortunate indeed, as Hollow Bastion was the destination I had in mind. In fact, your meeting Briara may help spur my little plan along."
Loki hesitantly raised a hand. "Hey, guys? Crazy suggestion, but maybe we shouldn't believe the neon green witch."
"Don't judge someone based on the color of their skin," Bernie admonished. Loki rolled his eyes.
Dia grabbed Emma's shoulder and pulled her back by a few steps. "This plan sounds sketchy as heck. We need to watch our backs."
Emma smiled confidently at her step-sister. "We will. But we can at least finish hearing Maleficent out."
With a swoop of her robes, Maleficent opened a dark corridor. Inky black wisps wafted out of the dust, braiding together and then snaking away. "I appreciate the trust, even temporarily," she said. "Now...shall we?"
"Sssorry, but this is as far asss we go," Sotel murmured, glaring at Loki. "This is no matter of ours."
Emma nodded. "You're right. This is for us to deal with. Take care of yourselves, alright?" She turned back to Maleficent. "Now...let's get to Hollow Bastion."
… … …
Maleficent and the Senshi reappeared in Ansem's study amidst scattered books and broken glass. "You had all intended to go to Space Paranoids, correct?" Maleficent asked. "Do you remember why you went there?"
Emma ran her hand along the dappled marble panels on the wall, dusty and cracked from years of neglect and abuse. "Yeah, the Restoration Committee wanted to access King Ansem's research on darkness, and hopefully Organization XIII."
"They need the DTD to access the data, and you have to go and open it from Dataspace," Dia continued. "But the files get corrupted anyway. You don't get to read them until way later in the game."
Maleficent peered down at Jake, who immediately backed away. "That is where I need the little animist. He can communicate with Ansem's computer, and unlock information I dearly need. I am sure it will be of use to you as well."
Jake summoned the Ikiteiru Shield again, as Emma found the secret panel to unlock the computer room, just as she had seen Leon do in the game. "So you want us to skip past both sections of Space Paranoids?" Jake asked.
Beams of light outlined a section of the wall, which faded to white and then disappeared. Maleficent swept past the Senshi, through the dim hallway of chrome and glass. Over her shoulder, she called, "Not 'skip', rather accelerate. Whatever Sora would have done to restore the data from the inside, tell the machine to work things out on its own. That way we can read it before the war."
Emma stopped short before following Maleficent and turned to the rest of the party. "Roxas, Max, Kaze? Can you go to the Shinkatei and update the Ino Senshi?" Emma asked tensely. "They could use extra hands before the upcoming fight."
Bernie crackled her knuckles. "I'll go with them. I've done way too much standing around."
Emma's voice dropped down to a hush as she whispered, "To be honest, I really just want more of us on the outside in case Maleficent tries something funny."
"We know," Roxas assured her. "We've got it." The four Senshi saluted and exited the study. Emma, Dia, Jake, Sora, Donald, Goofy, Riku, and Kairi were left to follow Maleficent into the computer room.
Jake flitted over to the computer console, his cherubic face illuminated by the bright green old-school readouts. "Remember, Jake, don't bang on the keyboard," Emma called. "That's how the MCP arrests Sora, Donald, and Goofy."
"I've got a lot more finapse than Donald's big feet," Jake laughed.
"It's 'finesse'. And what's wrong with my feet?" Donald squawked.
Jake pressed his fingers against the screen instead, and closed his eyes. "Animate!" He paused, listening. "Hi, Tron! I'm a User. Can you help me with something?"
Maleficent chuckled and folded her hands together. "What a helpful boy. While he takes care of that, I have another task for another child. Oh, possessor?"
Dia slipped her sunglasses on with a smirk. "What, hankering for a sing-a-long?"
"Nonsense. I will not have you manipulate me into performing show tunes," Maleficent sighed. "I have a far grander task for you. You can now control Heartless, can you not? How many have you wielded at once?"
"If we're talking Shadows, a few dozen, but I also sicced several bosses on Guardian."
"How do you feel about commanding an army?"
"What, like a hundred?"
"I was thinking...a thousand."
The Senshi, even Jake, stopped what they were doing and turned around. Dia flipped her sunglasses back atop her forehead and peered intensely at Maleficent. "You want me..." she rasped, "...to control one thousand Heartless at once?"
Maleficent preened herself, trying to downplay the request by brushing a few specks of nonexistent dust off her shoulders. "Surely the great Dia Quinn can find it in herself to order some lowly creatures around."
Dia threw her hands up in the air and yelled, "There's a massive difference between 'can' and 'will'! There's got to be some massive catch here."
Kairi thoughtfully tapped a finger against her chin. "Think about it this way: if destroying Heartless with the Keyblade means collecting hearts, that means we'd be helping Organization XIII fill up Kingdom Hearts. But if we leave them alone, they'll hurt people. The only safe option is to control them!"
"Whoa, whoa! That's not as safe as it sounds," Riku said.
"And it don't sound all that safe to start with," Goofy murmured.
Riku quickly shuffled between Maleficent and Dia. "Look, the more you play around with darkness, the more it plays you. Controlling a thousand Heartless could damage your heart beyond repair!"
Maleficent brushed Riku aside with the head of her scepter. "She shall not fight alone. You have experience with the darkness, so you may help shoulder her burden."
"I bet Eclipse and Kaze would help too!" Emma pointed out. "They can be, like...surge protectors."
Dia passed the Shihaii Wand back and forth between her hands, weighing her options. "Huh. If all three of you guys promise to back me up, then..." Suddenly, a wide grin burst across her face. "...this could be a lot of fun!"
Riku scowled, but Dia's resolve was far too much to argue with. He groaned and rubbed the back of his neck. "Yeah. Okay. I'm game if you are."
"Guys, look!" Jake chirped, proudly gesturing to the computer terminal. A flurry of multicolored boxes popped onto the monitor, bearing various checks and crosses to denote category and importance. "What do we hafta look up?"
Maleficent glid over to the computer and examined the files in triumph. She then ruffled Jake's hair, which he gladly accepted. Emma and Dia, on the other hand, looked profoundly troubled. "Excellent, young animist. King Ansem no doubt houses a treasure trove of information on this device, but I am especially intrigued by the nature of Kingdom Hearts."
"I knew it!" Sora yelled. "You just want to control all of the worlds, don't you!"
"I would indeed relish such a trophy. Alas, Keyblade Master...I meant the game."
Jake wriggled out from under Maleficent's grasp. "Really? We can tell you a whole lot about the games."
Maleficent tapped a few keys, sifting through information. "No doubt. But how much do you know about THE game? This peculiar dimension in which we now stand?" The palpable silence which ensues brought her another pleased sneer. "Vitality is measured in indescribable units of so-called 'hit points.' New powers are acquired through 'level ups'. Enemies drop currency, despite having no need of it themselves. Have you ever met a capitalist Heartless? I think not."
"Get to the point," Donald grumbled.
Maleficent turned away from the computer to smile eerily at the Senshi. "In short, we are all playthings, governed by a strict set of rules. Rules can always be broken, yes, but nevertheless they stand. So who created these rules, and why?"
"Tetsuya Nomura," Emma quipped.
"Did he really?" asked Maleficent. "Did a real-worlder really generate an entire universe? One that can fit on a shiny plastic disc? Would such a talented sorcerer craft entire worlds and souls for a pretty penny?"
Emma approached the computer terminal like it was a live bomb, but she just had to see what Maleficent had pulled up. "That's fair," Emma admitted. "So Ansem found out who DID create the game?"
"Oh, yes. You must know that he and King Mickey had a hand in triggering the prophecy that led to you and your friends entering the game," Maleficent explained. "He received a tutorial on how to travel between dimensions from the makers themselves. He couldn't have sent Tokumei, Briara, and Tolea into the real world otherwise."
"Tokumei? You know my dad?" Emma screeched.
Maleficent clicked on a few more files. "All in good time," she said. "Do you know about a game called Dissidia Final Fantasy?"
Emma shook her head. "Not really. I mean, I know it's a fighting game, but that's it. It doesn't come out until 2009."
"What year is it currently in the real world?"
"Interesting. Well, here is a sneak preview." Maleficent pulled up two photographs: one of a hauntingly beautiful blonde woman in a flowing white gown, another of a fiery and well-muscled demon with gnarled horns and claws. Emma scanned the paragraph beneath the pictures as Maleficent spoke. "The maiden is Cosmos, goddess of harmony. The fiend is Chaos, god of discord. The two are locked in an eternal fight over who will gain supremacy over the universe. Of course they must confine their conflict to an established battleground, else their war would rend apart their prize before either could claim it." Just then, Emma froze in horror as she finished the paragraph, and rapidly reread it several times to confirm. "Each deity selects their own champions, and whichever team emerges victorious wins the universe."
Sora pumped his fist, over-excitable as always. "That sounds so cool! I would definitely play that game."
"You already are," Emma whispered.
"What was that?" he asked.
Emma stepped away from the screen, first enlarging the paragraph so that the rest of the Senshi could read it from afar. "You're already playing Dissidia, Sora. We all are. Cosmos and Chaos are real, and the universe they're fighting over is the real world. Their battleground is Kingdom Hearts."