Chapter 5 - Down the Rabbit Hole

For having been designed to serve such a dark clientele, it was ironic the room was pure white. Rectangular and perfectly squared, the only furniture in the room was six ivory thrones, arranged in a half circle facing one of the long walls, upon which a large screen had been mounted across the entire surface. In four of these thrones sat the figure of something that was no longer human, no matter how hard they tried to be, while a fifth fiddled with the controls of the static-filled screen. Each of them was robed in a long black coat with the hoods pulled up, leaving their faces in shadow. It did not matter; they all knew each other anyway.

"Do we really have to resort to nuisances like this?" asked the form lounging in the throne furthest to the right, motioning to the electronic device on the wall, her soprano voice not bothering to hide her contempt. "We have better means of communication than this, far less complicated and secure. Not to mention reliable."

Her colleague didn't even bother looking up from his work to comment on the juvenile display, murmuring, "True, but we've received reconnaissance of increased activity among the Royal Guard lately, especially the Turks, and therefore they'll be on heightened alert. It would be unwise to draw their attention with excessive and unnecessary frivolities."

The woman shifted in her seat impatiently, obviously not fully satisfied with his answer, but just then the static on the screen cleared and all assembled gave it their full attention. Before them on the display was the image of a room nearly a perfect mirror of their own. Save for the occasional lingering static, the image was so lifelike, it could be believed that the two rooms were really one and the same, and had been designed to seem so, if not for the fact that the two locations were actually over a hundred miles apart.

The only difference was the seven thrones that occupied it and the six figures seated in them. But it was to the individual seated on the throne in the center of the others that all gave their complete and undivided attention to. For security, use of rank and designation on these transmissions was restricted to strictly need-to basis only, and names were outright forbidden. But for the Superior, no introductions were even necessary.

"The connection is secure?" he asked.

The one who had been working the controls nodded. "Yeah, encryption's running green. We're good."

The Superior nodded once in acknowledgment, and his subordinate took the cue to take his seat.

"How goes our progress in acquiring the prototype?" the Superior asked without further preamble.

Several of his five subordinates on the other end traded glances with one another.

"Not well," the third from the right confessed. "Even with all our skills, it has continued to elude us."

"You have lost the trail?"

"No. It is still in the vicinity somewhere, we are sure of it," the second from the left replied. He glanced at the empty throne on the other end... and the empty one beside him, remembering. "I know its scent now. Or the scent of the Heartless, rather. But on the edge of town, it changed and is now too fiercely mingled with the stench of the rabble."

The others seemed to ponder this for a moment. Finally, the one directly to the right of the Superior spoke. "Something must have happened to give its human side cause to rise, altering its scent. It is the only explanation," he concluded, ever the scientist.

"Agreed. In which case it is nigh impossible to find it now, even by you," the second-in-command said, nodding to the tracker who stiffened in affront. "We shall have to wait for the Heartless element to rise and resurface again."

"Yes, we shall remain patient," the Superior concurred. After all, their cabal had flourished in the shadows for many quiet years. "For the time being, continue searching for our secondary targets."

"It is already underway. There was some difficulty positioning the Dusks for surveillance, but that has since been rectified."

"How are our prospects?" It was obvious the scientist was already planning the experiments he'd have in store for this new Chosen One.

"As expected. There are those few with the potential, but none have emerged as true contenders as of yet."

"Any chance the prototype will lead us to the successor?" It was the woman who spoke again now, eager to find more worthy prey.

"There is a possibility."

"I need not remind you it is imperative we find the next bearer before he awakens," the Superior affirmed, his tone a subtle reproach.

"What makes you think it will be a he who next wields the Blade?" the smallest among them asked coyly, a vicious looking red pommel just visible behind her ivory throne. Her right hand twitched with the desire to call forth her new toy and show it off to her doubtlessly envious comrades. On the other end of the transmission, the only other female present noted the girl's smugness and hid a glare underneath her hood.

"I must confess," one cut in, making a playing card appear with a flick of a gloved hand. "I believe the odds to be in favor of the Cetra descendant."

"An impressive heritage, to be sure," the second-in-command agreed, "but hardly unique. There is a son of weapons mages among the potentials here, if you recall."

"I'd go with the sorceress chick myself, but that's just me," yet another drawled as he fiddled with the firing mechanism on what was either a crossbow or some kind of rifle. And if the business end of the weapon just so happened to point more or less at the group's resident musician (who was trying not to cower in his seat), it was entirely inconsequential.

"Think what you like," the card player demurred, flipping the one in his hand over to reveal and ace of spades. "I on the other hand have played the game long enough to know how to pick my tables."

"We should just take them all out now, before any of them awaken," the woman sneered.

"No. Maintain your surveillance for now," the Superior commanded. "But bear in mind time is of the essence. In not but three months, the Princess will come of age and the time for our revolution will be at hand; before which we must find her and her champions."

"Why not eliminate them now?" the second-in-command inquired carefully. "Even if only one is to be Master, surely the others still have potential enough to be of nuisance when the time comes."

Had any of the others asked this, they would have been dealt with swiftly. As it were, the Superior merely replied, "True, the death of a single Gifted child may go unnoticed. Any more at once will raise alarm among their brethren elsewhere. And though they are but children, their magic will protect them all the more strongly because of it."

Here he paused for a moment, letting the unspoken warning sink in. "Dismissed."

A wave of a cloaked arm cut the transmission and ended the gathering. The five found themselves facing only a blank screen again. Zexion and Saix rose from their seats and left the room almost immediately, but Larxene and Marluxia lingered a bit.

"Lucky little bitch," Larxene swore, throwing off her hood and not bothering to lower her voice. "Why does she get such special treatment? That undeserving brat was even granted a Keyblade! Of all the nerve!"

"Only an imitation," Marluxia reminded her, standing, though he knew what it was to be so slighted in favor of someone lesser. "She has the potential as much as any of the others."

"If that's what I have to look forward to once this is all good and over, I quit here and now," the blonde grumbled. A patient schemer in her own right, all this sneaking around and inaction was dragging on too long for Larxene's tastes. She was getting restless.

"Now, now," her companion chided lightly. "The girl is an integral tool to our plans, after all."

For some reason, they both smiled darkly as he said this. "But only a tool. Ultimately expendable," Larxene smirked, laughing a little, the thought amusing her. 'When the time comes, I'm gonna be the first in line to 'expend' her.'

Behind them, Axel remained silent as he followed them out, as he had for the entire discussion since connecting the transmission. 'Yes, our cause,' he thought, 'our glorious revolution.'

Glancing around at the empty thrones, Axel wondered how many of his coconspirators still believed that.


The beginning of a new school year was always a drag, having to give up the freedom of summer for the monotony of the classroom and hitting the books. But for Roxas, this year was starting out especially bad. The entirety of the first day alone just sucked for the sole reason that he'd gotten absolutely zero sleep the night before, nor the night before that. Every time he even got close to drifting off, fierce yellow eyes and that unholy snarl were waiting for him behind his eyelids. Needless to say, he'd slept very little.

Roxas was pretty sure the only reason his mother hadn't noticed yet was because as a biology professor herself, she was just as swamped by the new semester as he was. Pence, Olette, and Hayner had noticed of course, but, well, they already knew enough to have a pretty good guess as to what was going on and though they worried about him, knew well enough to let him to work stuff out on his own.

But they only knew the half of it.

That first morning after the second encounter with the shadow-thing that wasn't a Heartless, Roxas had almost been expecting more writing. They almost always happened after particularly traumatic events, and as Roxas had had two days in a row of those, it followed that there would be two mornings after that he awoke to find new messages. He wasn't disappointed.

In almost the same manner as the crown from yesterday, a new image had appeared on the outside of his left bicep. At first, Roxas thought it was the Heartless symbol upside down. But the letters were right side up, so it couldn't be. Studying the outline for a moment, he saw it wasn't the emblem at all. The Heartless symbol looked like a thorned heart with a fleur-de-lis like bottom. This thing didn't have thorns or fleurs, but it did have an upside down heart with twin holes in it, topped by an almost gothic equal-armed cross. Roxas hadn't seen anything like it before. Weird.

While he was examining it, Roxas had spied some words in the design and soon worked out the rest. It was far from reassuring:

"And thus I clothe my naked villainy

With old odd ends stol'n forth of holy writ;

And seem a saint, when most I play the Devil."

Roxas heard his voice grow quieter as he read the last line aloud. A devil pretending to be a saint? Naked villainy? What was this? Somewhat distantly, he realized the verse was in iambic pentameter. Probably Shakespeare then, though he didn't have a clue what specific play offhand.

But the sheer malignancy of the verse deeply unnerved him, and Roxas decided to suspend all further speculation about it until he could get onto his computer and find out where the hell it was from. The circumstances that these things were written for by their original authors often shed light as to their relevance to him in the here and now. Roxas wasn't sure if he dreaded or welcomed such insight on such ominous prose.

Continuing his inspection of himself, Roxas saw the crown from yesterday was still there over his heart, though the letters had faded a bit. Curiously, there was a new line of text right in the middle of it:

the key in silence undetected

Searching his memory a bit, Roxas recognized it as part of a clue from the movie National Treasure. Unless he was going on a treasure hunt sometime in the near future, that was supremely unhelpful, as was the single line "The Beginning" that had materialized on his back between his shoulder blades.

And that was it, as far as he could tell. Roxas still felt lower than a slug for what had happened with the not-Heartless and Olette, but at least it didn't seem like his subconscious was going to be writing him nightly "you're a loser" notes (hey, it had happened before) and Roxas allowed himself to let it go a little.

And speaking of Olette, she called him fifteen minutes later as he was finishing breakfast with his mom. Yesterday's thunderstorm had lingered overnight, and in lieu of the festival being canceled, she was ordering him to her house for fresh baked chocolate chip cookies and a Monty Python marathon. The girl gave him thirty minutes to get his butt over there or she was siccing Pence and Hayner on him.

Bone-ached and damn tired, Roxas smiled and thanked whatever gods there were for the friends he really didn't deserve. He'd been so absorbed about all the weird, creepy crap going on in his life and here comes sweet, dependable Olette to cheer him up- by force, if need be.

'Only that girl could shanghai somebody with cookies,' he thought fondly.

Roxas vowed that today was about his friends. He'd almost ruined all their lives yesterday. He was not going to ruin their last day of summer, too. Or any other day with them ever again.

That had been the plan, anyway. But Roxas hadn't counted on his own mind turning against him. He'd let himself off the hook too soon.

Roxas may have sworn to forget his curiosity (his morbid curiosity, he reminded himself forcefully) about the mansion and the not-Heartless inside of it, but it seemed the black monstrosity was all his subconscious mind could think about.

When he wasn't turning over restlessly in his bed unable to sleep or having nightmares about a yellow-eyed hissing shadow bearing down on him, Roxas dreamed of wandering down the crumbling hallways to the white room and the library until he knew them so well he felt he could recall their every detail.

The writing didn't stop, either.

It was nothing major at first. A line on his forearm one night, a line on his calve the next. But every morning, without fail, Roxas would roll out of bed only to find more ink somewhere on his body.

These new writings were very mixed. Some were deliberate, pointed. Others seemed to be nothing more than ranting or gibberish, but resonated with Roxas in a way he couldn't place, the way the crown poem had. All stood out starkly in his mind, the way the ink stood out starkly on his skin.

Those beings who lack hearts – the Heartless – must be the key.

Those who lack hearts… I will call them the Heartless.

The passage sent a shiver down Roxas' spine. Even after a century, no one knew exactly where the Heartless had originated from. Most just called them that because Maleficent called them that, and since she was the one who controlled them, everyone assumed she had created them while dabbling around with dark magic. But after Maleficent was slain by the Keybearers and her castle was raided by the Royal Guard, they had found nothing that concretely proved the witch herself had in fact created her legions of monsters or how she controlled them, any evidence probably having been already destroyed.

If this was from any sort of journal or notes of hers, it was something no one had read in a hundred years.

But where there is light, darkness also lurks. Darkness is the midst of nothing. And darkness sleeps in every heart, no matter how pure.

That one was straight out of King Ansem's journals. Every schoolchild in the land had been required to read Ansem's memoirs at one time or another . Roxas fervently hoped this didn't mean he'd be needing the King's detailed knowledge about the Heartless anytime soon. Or worse- learning parts of it firsthand.

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

Heaven will direct it.

Nay, let's follow him.

'Yeah, and that way madness lies,' Roxas mentally shot back at his own subconscious when he'd first read it. Two could play that game.

That single line of his back turned out to be the title of what grew to be very short story of sorts:

The Beginning

Each journey gives rise to chance encounters and each encounter brings for a farewell.

When a farewell leads to a journey, the people open their hearts.

Those chosen by the light, or ensnared by the darkness. Friends share the same bonds, though their paths may differ.

When you doubt the path trod thus far, when the hand you held is lost to you, gaze anew at the heart that was…

for all answers lie within.

Roxas wasn't sure if this was supposed to comfort him in some way or not, but the sense of subtle foreboding it gave him, the sense that something was coming, more than freaked him out a little.

And then there were references to what seemed to be called the "non-existent ones." At first, Roxas thought this was just another allegory for the Heartless. And yet…

An in-between existence.

The single most distressing of all the writings remained the villain quote that appeared the second day. It had indeed been Shakespeare, from Act I, scene iii of King Richard III. Richard was not yet a monarch at that point in the story, but was plotting to usurp the throne from the Queen by placing blame on her for his brother's fraudulent imprisonment. The lines were his grotesque glorification of his evil and ruthlessness. A true wolf in sheep's clothing.

Roxas never wanted to meet the guy that made that passage relevant to him.

Apart from feeling like he was slowly going nuts from all this, what truly creeped Roxas out the most was the way the writing almost seemed to respond to him at times. It wasn't anything obvious, more like all his thoughts and feelings and protests were condensed into a general and very vague memo that his subconscious bothered to read only when it felt like it. Neither did it answer any of his questions, whether he ask them aloud or consciously wrote them on his arm.

The back of his head also seemed to pick up that he wasn't listening to it, either, and wasn't happy. The more stubbornly Roxas refused orders to return to the mansion, the more adamant the writing was that he should do so. It was like he was slowly losing control over himself- which didn't even make any sense. But then, what part of any of this did?

Either way, it seemed to have no reservations about mocking his efforts to contain it:

Out, damn'd spot! Out, I say!

"Oh, now you're just being a jerk!" Roxas snapped at his wrist. Though the door was closed, he was still loud enough that his mother heard him from across the hall.

"Roxas? Sweetie, is everything okay?" she called from her bathroom.

"Fine, Mom!" he called back, hoping she wouldn't come in to investigate. 'Just having an argument with myself- not sure who's winning.'

It had been close to two weeks since all this had started and Roxas simply refused to tell anyone about it. Not his mom, not Olette and the guys, nobody. He knew he couldn't keep it up forever, but Roxas was too desperate to maintain the thin veil of normalcy. He couldn't stand the people he loved looking at him like he was a raving lunatic.

Bad enough his mind and arms had turned against him, but then his legs seemed to have decided to join in the mutiny as well. If he wasn't paying attention, they began to take on a will of their own, walking him off somewhere Roxas hadn't meant to go. And more often than not, that somewhere was right back in the direction of the mansion.

Twice after school, he found himself turning left, toward the tram commons, on the far side of which was the huge crack in the outer wall that opened into the woods, instead of right, up the hill to Market Street towards home. Wednesday morning he had been so absorbed with brooding over the latest message (scribbled on his leg this time) Roxas utterly failed to notice when said limbs walked him straight to the woods beyond town until a twig snapping under his foot likewise snapped him out of it. He could just make out the manor's roof over the line of trees.

Cursing at himself and the world and whatever else he could think of , Roxas whipped around and high tailed it back to school. He was in such a hurry, Roxas nearly knocked over that guy he'd met the other day as he sprinted down the street, not even realizing it until the redhead shouted, "Hey-! Watch where you're going, kid!"

Still running at full burn, the speeding blond only glanced over his shoulder, recognized his almost victim by his hair and shouted a quick, "Sorry!" before turning around again and disappearing around the corner in his mad and futile attempt to get to school on time.

Axel stared after him a minute before shaking his head, whether at the gall of kids these days or something else entirely, no one knew, not even him, and he continued on his way.

Though the very image of a manic pedestrian, Roxas still ended up 20 minutes late. Three periods later as he sat through algebra, it dawned on him how badly this thing was getting out of control. The messages were getting increasingly numerous and ever more persistent, all telling him to go back to the mansion in the woods.

Not threatening to him, per se, and never quite so blunt as "finish what you started, punk," but increasingly insistent that he obey.

'But I won't,' he swore to himself, scrunching his eyes shut, trying to send his thoughts into the deepest recesses of him mind, to whatever part of him this was coming from. 'Last two times I went there, someone I love almost got killed. I. Am. NOT. Going. Back!'

For four days, his renewed promise seemed to work. There were no new writings, either on himself or anywhere else, and his feet took him nowhere except where he wanted them to. Roxas went to bed Sunday night tentatively hopeful that this… episode was finally over.

On Monday, Roxas woke up, and inspected himself carefully. Nothing.

Slowly letting out a breath of relief, Roxas dropped his pajamas on his bed and went into the bathroom to start getting ready for the day.

Glancing in the mirror as he stepped into the shower, Roxas did a double take – and felt his fledgling hope drain like the blood from his face.

There, across every available inch of skin, was writing. Every inch covered in letters and symbols. His face was almost completely black with them.

Roxas didn't even stop to read them. He wrenched the hand towel from the rack by the sink, plunged into the shower and began scrubbing at his face furiously.

'Why? Why is this happening to me? Why me?'

A sob tried to work its way up his throat, but Roxas forced it back down. Freaking out and breaking down was not going to help.

It was only once his skin had been rubbed raw and began smarting too painfully to continue did Roxas finally stop attacking his face and finished showering normally, letting the warm spray cascade over him and willed himself to calm down.

Still, it was only once the water started getting noticeably colder did Roxas shut it off and grab a towel to dry off. Taking a deep breath, he forced himself to step out of the sanctuary of the tub and reexamine himself in the mirror.

To his relief, much of the markings were now gone. Most, but not all.

Written boldly across his forehead in what Roxas assumed was black permanent marker was:


As he stood there, staring at his reflection and dripping water all over the floor, Roxas was still more than a little rattled. But it occurred to him that the writing was legible to him in the mirror, which meant it was really written backwards and thus illegible to anyone looking at him straight on.

It was meant to be readable only by him.

Only him…

Roxas glanced at the clock. Seven fifty-two. Class started at eight. If he threw on some clothes now and ran like hell, Roxas could maybe still make it on time. But he stayed where he was.

A message only for him…

The last two times Roxas had gone to the mansion, one of his best friends had almost died. He'd sworn it would never happen again. Even if his own mind drove him insane, Roxas was never going to endanger his friends like that. Ever.

But school started in less than five minutes, after which Hayner, Pence, and Olette would be stuck in class all day, away from the mansion and that monster lurking within. They'd be safe while he went on alone. There'd be hell to pay with his mom later for skipping school, but…

A message for him alone…

'Just go now,' a part of his mind argued. 'Your friends are safe. Go now, find out what the hell the deal is, and get it over with. Just go…'

"Go now and get it over with," he murmured to himself, meeting the eyes of his reflection. Behind the glass, his reflection stared trepidly back at him.


There was only gonna be hell to pay with his mom if the haunted house and the monster didn't beat her to it, Roxas amended as he stepped into the dusty foyer.

Leaving the door open for light and air (and a quick getaway, but Roxas prayed it wouldn't come to that), he wandered carefully into the room. It had gotten far too familiar for comfort lately, but now that he was inside, Roxas realized that he hadn't really given much thought as to what would happen or what he'd actually do once he got here.

Well, he supposed there really was nothing to do but wait.

Roxas was tempted to just stay by the door and keep watch from there, but it was set back in a deep alcove, so the upper floor and the side walls were out of the line of sight. He sat down in front of the ruined display case in the center instead. It was far from ideal, but it did have the best vantage point and at least it gave Roxas something solid to put his back to. So he settled in with his backpack and the dust bunnies and waited.

The morning wore on slowly.

Roxas kept his eyes trained on the shadows and his ears open for any sound at all, but all was still and it was utterly quiet. Even with the door open behind him, Roxas couldn't hear any birds or wind from outside. Even the ticking of his watch seemed hushed somehow. Roxas considered keeping it on, just to have something to oppose the almost oppressive silence, but ultimately he stashed the timepiece in his bag. If he could hear it, he wasn't taking the chance that the not-Heartless could hear it, too.

With the distraction gone, Roxas found his attention wandering. He was very much still on high alert, but with no apparent danger present, his tired mind was hard pressed to maintain such dedicated vigilance.

In an effort to keep himself occupied, Roxas took to studying his surroundings in-depth. Particularly, he compared what details of the foyer he had all but memorized from his dreams with the real thing. There were discrepancies, of course, the two times he'd been up there had hardly been occasions to take in very much. But all in all, his dreams had been fairly accurate. Doors and windows and such were more or less where he'd imagined them to be. The twin statues of rearing winged unicorns still flanked the large French doors that led out to the inner courtyard (what was it with this place and unicorns, Roxas wondered, remembering the similar sculpture up in the library). Certain paintings and other decoration were on the floor rather than on the wall, and the color pallet had definitely been brighter in his dreams, leading Roxas to wonder if he hadn't been imagining what the manor had looked like when it was still in use when he'd dreamed of it.

It really must have been a grand and dignified place once, he decided. Shame it had fallen into such disrepair. Someone had certainly put a lot of money into building it, so why had they abandoned it? Where were they now? Probably dead, in all honesty, but wouldn't they have had children or relatives the house could have gone to?

As he speculated about the mansion's mystery owners, Roxas remembered the three children whose portraits hung in the white room. He still didn't know who they were, but they must have lived here once.

Roxas kinda wanted to see them again, like they were old friends of his that he hadn't spoken to in a while, but remained where he was on the floor. He hadn't forgotten what had happened the last time he'd been in that room. The still visible trail of Hayner's blood on the tile killed any inclination to go exploring again.

Half an hour slipped into an hour, and still no sign of the not-Heartless. Roxas' focus dwindled even further. The warm patches of sunlight that managed to slowly climb over the line of trees and flood through the windows didn't help matters, either. It highlighted the dust even more, but that only served to make everything seem fuzzier somehow; softer, sleepier. In spite of himself, eventually, Roxas dozed off.

He didn't dream, but more he drifted in that weird limbo between sleep and awake. Everything seemed to just disappear in a white haze, and even time seemed suspended.

He came to again sometime later when his cell went off in his pocket. Feeling stiff from napping in such a cramped position, Roxas gingerly retrieved the phone and flipped it open. Pence had texted him:

Where r u? it said.

"Waiting for a demon to jump out of a wall and eat me," Roxas muttered. He checked the time. Ten forty-five. Fourth period, History, was just starting, the first class he had with any of his friends. Of course they'd be realizing he wasn't in school right about now. It also meant that he'd been here for the better part of three hours and still nothing had happened. This little venture was starting to look like a big waste of time.

Roxas started to type up a reply when he realized something. Excluding this morning and the past couple of days, this was the first time in weeks he'd regained consciousness without finding a writing implement in his hand. Quickly inspecting himself in what remained of the display's glass to be certain, Roxas verified that there was no new markings on him (the one left over from this morning was mercifully still well covered by the make-up he kept for just such occasions). Maybe this whole "go and get it over with" thing was starting to pay off already.

…Or maybe he just hadn't had anything to write with, Roxas corrected, noticing his backpack was no longer beside him. And when he followed the trail in the dust of where it had gone to…

He found that the not-Heartless had dragged his bag away from him while he'd slept and up to the first landing on the stairs.

For a full ten minutes, they just stared at each other. The entire time, Roxas was aware of absolutely nothing other than the sight of the monster that filled his vision, and the sound of his heart pounding in his ears.

But after a while, the thing seemed to grow bored with him, returning its attention instead to the bag. Completely ignoring the convenience of the zipper, it had ripped open the front pocket to get at something inside, a brown paper bag.

"Hey!" Roxas cried. "That's my lunch!"

The creature did not reply, or give any indication that it had even heard the blond at all. Roxas could only watch indignantly as it took a large bite into a peach, spitting out the seed which was apparently not to its liking. The discarded pit bounced a few times before stopping at his feet.

That peach had been the last one they'd had at home from Grandma Marlene's farm. Roxas considered kicking it back at the thing, horribly painful claws be damned, but he paused, picking it up instead. There were deep grooves in it from the not-Heartless' teeth, but otherwise, the seed was intact, the bits of tattered flesh still clinging to it still pink and juicy.

Roxas turned it over in his hand. It wasn't a shrived black husk, wasn't ruined by the taint of darkness. And neither was he. 'I was sleeping,' he thought. 'Unconscious and totally helpless. And all it does is swipe my bag to steal my lunch? What the hell?'

Something else occurred to him. Heartless didn't eat. At least, not food, anyway.

"You're… really not a Heartless," Roxas asked the thing quietly, "are you?"

He looked the creature over again. It looked different from the last two times he'd seen it. It was more… defined somehow, and something about its eyes had definitely changed.

A low growl let him know his staring was not appreciated. So, not a Heartless, but not human, either.

"But, if you're not a Heartless, then… what are you?"

Here, the creature paused in its pilfering, looking back at him for the first time since their unofficial staring contest. There was definitely something different about its eyes. Last time, they had been pure yellow and almost completely round at one point. Though still mostly yellow, now they were almond shaped instead with white at the corners. They almost looked like human eyes.

Those beings who lack hearts – the Heartless – must be the key, the writing had said, ensnared by the darkness...

Something odd was definitely going on here. Roxas was getting the funny feeling it would be up to him to find out what. He wasn't entirely sure he had a choice. Who else could?

Who else would?

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

Roxas had never put much faith into things like fate and predetermination of a person's ultimate destiny. Some things just had to happen, like water seeking the path of least resistance as it flowed downhill. Once a stone was thrown into the air, it was just the way things work that the stone would have to eventually fall back to earth. But it was the thrower's choices that affected how far the stone went and whether it landed in a field or in a stream. Once certain events transpired or choices were made, there were just certain consequences that inevitably followed.

That was what Roxas had always believed, anyway.

Those chosen by the light...

But for the first time in his life, Roxas felt like he was getting pulled along by something much bigger than he was. He still wouldn't call it destiny, but somehow or another, he had stumbled onto this path, and now he had to walk down it ready or not.


A.N. I considered actually working the lines from King Richard III into the Nobody symbol, but uh… no, just no.

Anyway, you all have Angels & Demons to thank for this update. I saw it for the first time three weeks ago while on vacation with my family. Pretty good movie, book was better IMO, but oh my god, the soundtrack brought back every idea I ever had for the ending of this fic like whoa! And then some!

I was so inspired I wrote the entire first draft on the flight home. Since it's been so long, I tried to pack in a lot more than usual. Hope it was worth it! :D

And once again, huge thank you for ShinobiCyrus. Couldn't have done it without ya!