"The monsters are incredible. Normal weapons are nothing against them. Trance works. Magic works, and summons... no, Eidolons cannot be fielded against them any more than a great bull could be considered an adequate weapon against a gathering of hungry sharks." The princess said somberly. "Aside from healing, I am of no use. The only other thing shown to affect them at all are incredibly powerful weapons, made with mystic materials."

"We have a lead on Excalibur." rumbled. "Until it is located, however, I am of little more use than the impudent monkey. If fielded alongside Vivi, then a combination attack can have some effect, but not nearly so much as his magics alone. Other weapons are known to exist, but until then-"

"SIEGE!" The cry calls, interrupting the knight's words. "They're coming from below!"

"Blast!" Steiner roared. "That tunnel was sealed, how could?"

"Their forms are mutable. Almost fluid, at times. Hundreds of tons of stone, dropped down... it looks as though it's enough to slow them down, but not halt them."

Beatrix shook her head.

"The princess. See to her escape, an airship should be nearby, and sufficient to outrun them. Pray they've not learned to fly. There is a choke-point below. My soldiers and I shall block their advance."

"It's suicide! There is nothing normal weapons can do against them, your soldiers will be no more than-"

"Bait. A distraction." Beatrix agrees. "We have all sworn our lives in service. It is no trouble, to have them end before the expected hour."

"... Gah. Very well, then. I, also, will-"

"Captain Adelbert Steiner." Beatrix interrupts. "Do you mean to leave the princess entirely without royal guard, her security only ensured by those others?"

"... Tch. Very well then. However, General Beatrix. I will make this request. Survive. Your princess will have need of you. You must live, retreat the moment her safety is assured."

"... Yes. The moment I am certain of the Princess's safety, I will assure my own." Beatrix agrees.

The battle met, and it seemed that those under her command knew that their doom had come, but the valor with which they fought was not hindered for a moment, none fighting harder than Beatrix herself, her enchanted blade, Save the Queen, the only item on the field which could give pause to the dark hordes.

But it was not enough. Dozens, hundreds of the fell horde were cut down, but one after another her soldiers fell, and for every twisted being she cleaved in twain, ten more rose to take its place, their teeming hunger endless.

She saw the air-ship lift off, and that was enough. She knew full well, surrounded by thousands of the creatures as she was, alone, that there was never any hope for her escape from the beginning. She had already begun to tire, but the ship had not gained enough altitude. The occasional leaping demon could yet reach it from the rooftops.

She redoubled her efforts, sparing no amount of power to keep the hungry eyes focused where she wished them. Here. Ever and only here, and upon her, and not turning away to less savory but more easily taken meals. Her soldiers had risen up, joining the fell horde in their ends, and it was with the utmost regret that she destroyed them once more.

She had run empty. There was nothing left that she could give. But it was finally enough, the ship had risen high enough to be unreachable. There was some sad attempt, with cannon-fire and launched spells, to clear a path for her own escape. Not enough. It could not possibly have been enough, as the holes closed as swiftly as they had opened. But she could no longer fight.

As she dropped to her knees, gasping for breath, she did not release the hilt of her blade. A final pair were cut down, mid-leap, by the last swing she could muster the strength of arm to perform. And then they were upon her.

She knew pain, then, eyes focused on the retreating air-ship. She could almost imagine she saw Steiner's distress, his howls of impotent rage, his betrayal at this broken promise. She prays that he will find some measure of forgiveness for the necessity of it.

Then her world is engulfed in a merciful darkness.

... But that is not the end of things. Hunger awakes her, and hunger drives her forth, the desperate, all-encompassing need to consume pushing her forward, from world to world and through the places between, countless tiny lives lost to her predations, cast into a yawning void that she will never, can never, fill...

And then a calm. Not a cessation of the hunger, but a muting of it. Lessening the urgent, unstoppable need to something which might be borne, as an order is given. She knows something. For this little time, she can force herself above the status of a slavering animal, to think again. She knows what to do.

The blade fits, strangely enough, as easily in her now-warped and twisted hand as it had the day she last swung it. It is right, that she holds it once more. It is good. Not all have the same opinion, as she is found, deep in thought beside a grave-marker, her own name carved carefully into its face.

"Wretched hell-spawn!" Steiner howls, calm walk transforming into a barreling charge, not slowed a bit by the age shown through the wrinkles of his face. "You dare set your cursed feet to trespass in this hall of fallen heroes? I forbid it! It is unforgivable!"

He swings a mighty blade now, rather than one forged of simple steel. Save the Queen is hard-pressed to withstand its might, as she parries the blow. Has he, then, located the fabled Excalibur? If so, good. He might continue to serve, where she has failed.

She notes only a single engraving on the blade, before she retreats through a door torn into the darkness. 'II'. She knows not what it might mean, but she bears a tiny, perverse pleasure in the knowledge that many, many of her brethren have fallen, and will continue to fall, to that blade.

Keeping hold of the treasure in her hands was more than she might have expected.

Her eye opened, and Save the Queen whistled through the air, a blast of crackling energy called down against her target. A minor Shadow, one of countless others. There was no regret in her action, nor resentment from the other. Such assaults could not permanently harm such as they, after all, knowledge which would have been greatly appreciated in a former life. Even that mighty blade of Steiner's could do no more than greatly inconvenience her, for a very long time. No, the only weapon which could to permanent harm to one such as they was a Key.

And yet, as weapons went, the Key was not particularly mighty in and of itself. Only its ability to truly harm them made it more notable than any other. And while a blade formed of shadow-stuff might not hold against it... Save the Queen was untainted. A superior blade to the Key, in all respects but that one.

She could not help but, for a moment, wonder what that might mean for the future.

Ranma took a moment to gasp for breath. Thus far, she'd been burned, stabbed, cut, partially frozen, hit by fucking lightning, and trampled by birds. Her opponent hadn't come off well through the exchange either, but he'd fared better. It was a good thing she would heal all of this.

"I hate those things." She said, conversationally, pointing at his shining spots of light and dripping a bit of black matter before her wounds sealed shut.

"What a coincidence. I hate things that don't die when I kill them." Cloud answered shortly.

"Sounds like a checkmate, then." Ranma shot back with a smirk.

"Not quite." Cloud replied, as one more of his materia shone. Ranma's face fell at the arrival.

"Dragons aren't fair!" She howls, as Bahamut inhales deeply.

"Life isn't fair. One such as you should know this full well, heartless. Curse your fate, if you must." Cloud says, and Bahamut sets loose a blast of incredible destruction.

It's all Gardevoir can do, as Ranma releases her, to teleport them out of the way in time. Even clearing it, Ranma still feels fairly singed from the proximity of things, and recalls her quickly to prevent the swordsman from picking her out as another target.

"... That's it. I've had enough." Ranma almost snarls, wisps of darkness curling around her until they coil back into what now passes for flesh. "This fight will take too long to settle, one way or the other, and the more tired I get, the hungrier I become. You... win." She says, the last word hissed through grit teeth.

"I have a habit of that." Cloud said, moving his blade in response. "Though to be honest, had I known you were a heartless, I wouldn't have bothered. The bounty is good, but if I can't kill you, then I can't collect, and I'm not in the business of doing Leon's dirty work for free, or for softening up tough opponents so someone else can take the kill. So, then, are you just going to hold still and let me hack you apart enough that you won't be troublesome for a few weeks?"

"Hardly. I'm retreating now." Ranma replied.

"Do you think I'll let you?" Cloud asked.

"Do you think you can stop me?" Was Ranma's sour reply.

... Actually, she wasn't sure if he might not be able to, at least if she tried to escape from this point. If he caused more trouble, she would have to get to some greater distance before she could return to the Between place. Though following her through the portal would probably be the dumbest thing he could do, so she doubted he would make the attempt.

"One thing though, to occupy your mind. Do you know what you've got, there, letting you do such fancy tricks?" Ranma asked, having gotten a good look at them during the fight. Enough to draw some conclusions, at least.

"Materia. Crystallized energy, extracted from the flowing life-stream of the Planet..." Cloud says, then frowns. "... Not from Radiant Garden. Somewhere else, I can't recall..."

"It doesn't matter much where, but you're right." Ranma said. "But now, think of this. Worlds and people both have Hearts. Those things are from energy coursing through a planet. And I can almost taste an echo of that world's Heart upon them. You understand? Moving through a body, to and from the heart? What you have there is nothing less than congealed droplets of a world's life-blood." She finished, with a finger pointing dramatically. "A tiny fragment, almost, of its very Heart. For someone with no frame of reference for my hunger... you cannot imagine the temptation they hold. If I could get my hands on even one of them, then it represents a route right to the innermost part of that world's Heart."

She swung an arm.

"So don't you dare lose sight of them, even for a moment!" Ranma declared. "Because if one of us finds it, that world is lost, as countless of our number consume its very Heart from the inside out. It's in your best interest, too. A dead Planet can't provide the power to fuel those fancy attacks, can it."

"Reasonable advice. If unexpected, from one of your kind. I'd almost have expected you to try to convince me to throw them away." Cloud said, musingly.

"Shows what you know. You don't think every last one of is content with, things, to just be a slavering beast forever, do you?" Ranma said with disgust. "There's someone I have to find. When I do... I can fix everything, somehow. I know it!"

"... Tch." was the swordsman's only response. He didn't step forward to press an assault, though, even as Ranma stepped backwards into an opening portal.

"And Cloud. My name. It's Ranma Saotome! Forget, and I'll carve the words into your thick skull."

The portal winked shut. Cloud waited for a few minutes afterward, for the expected distraction enemies to show up and try to occupy his time. None did. It was with equal parts confusion, and annoyance, that he put the Buster sword away.

"... What a complete waste of time." He grumbled.

"Arcanine, Fire Blast!" Celia yelled energetically.

Her opponent flinched as the attack seared into his bug-type partner, and he quickly withdrew it in order to keep it in good enough condition for healing.

"... I guess that's that." The gym leader admitted, shaking his head. "You've earned this one fair and square."

"That's right! A single type always has weaknesses, and no matter how strong your bugs are, they can't stand up to Arcanine's sheer firepower."

"Noted. It's a thematic thing, however." He said, shaking his head. "Besides, if I used a more diverse team then nobody would ever win."

"Heh. Confident in yourself, huh Bugsy."

"As a gym leader, it's almost required, young lady." The old man said, dryly. "But nevertheless, you've earned this. The Hive Badge."

He flipped it through the air, and Celia snatched it carefully, smile broadening as she looked down.

"That makes... eight. Four from Kanto. Four from Johto. I can make a regional challenge against either league, now..."

"I wouldn't think you're ready for that quite yet." Bugsy said, with some amusement. "After all, they have fewer thematic stringencies... it's not going to be so easy to defeat them."

"You don't think I know that?" Celia answered. "But I'm not going after them right away anyway. One more region, four more badges..."

"... I see. Pokemon Champion. You set your sights high, girl... it's been fifteen years since anyone made an attempt like that, and they ran out of steam halfway through." Bugsy said, musingly.

"I promised, after all." Celia said, then shook her head. "Heh. Nothings going to stop me. The rest of the Gym Leaders, the Elite Four of every region... they'd better just surrender now, and get it over with!"

"Heh. Confident in yourself, aren't you, girl?" Bugsy echoes ironically.

"You bet. Failure isn't an option here. I will win." She says simply. "It's a long walk to Hoenn, though, and I can't just ride Arcanine the whole way."

"Well, not much to be done there. Stay the night at my place if you want, though. Not much company since the kids all moved out. Can't do much for you, but better than the accomodations at the Pokemon Centers, right?" The old man offers. "You can tell me how your grandfather's been doing since I last saw him."

"You bet!" Celia said, confident that while things were going well here, they had to be going equally well for her rival. Which meant that she had to keep pushing forward, and faster, come morning.

Things were not going very well for Ranma at all.

She remained still, lying on her back as she stared up into the darkness and portals above, reviewing and deeply considering the fight she had ended up in. It grated at her, but even if she hadn't just given up the victory, she was slowly coming to the conclusion that she would have lost. She'd fought a lot of things. Incredibly powerful people, beings, and monsters. And yet, she'd hardly been able to scratch that guy, and even that was quickly dealt with when he applied healing magics from his Materia.

In contrast, she wouldn't stay hurt either, but that was just because she would re-form so fast following wounds. And she hadn't at all needed to know that her arms would grow back, in case she lost them.

She sat up, fighting the urge to give in to the now almost-perceptible demands of the surrounding Darkness, to head back up and scout for a place to begin an Invasion. She had to think.

That guy was just... on another level. She wasn't sure what he was used to fighting, but she got the feeling that it was in the league of things that could have toyed with Saffron for a while before crushing him like a bug. He was a big problem. With luck, he wouldn't get it the way. If not, she had to figure out his.. his drive, motivations. Focus him on something that he wanted more than to interfere with what she might be doing...

She'd never thought about things like this. That was more Ayanami's thing. Yet she was falling into it remarkably easily. At the same time, the thought of just having let that guy win... it didn't sting, like she was sure it should have. The urge to get to things, to track him down and fight again, win, and prove superiority just wasn't... well, it was there. But it was nothing like what it should have been.

Was that just some personal growth, she wondered, or was it from becoming a Heartless? The minions had at least finished some kind of throne, and she sat in it. The framework of the black palace was all there, only waiting for the last facing to be put on before it was complete. She resumed her thought.

... Perhaps something had gone wrong. This whole thing, it was only ever before a matter for one person in one body. Or at least, if any others had occured, they had not had the force of will to continue on as more than one of many, afterward. Maybe... no, definitely. It hadn't divided them quite right. There were still bits of Rei, inside of her, where there should be none. And in Rei, they had been replaced with bits of herself.

That wouldn't hold! Even if they had been divided into two humans, and not into a Heartless and Nobody, monsters both, it wouldn't have been something to overlook. It had to be fixed. The only way she could see that happening, though, was for them to somehow be rejoined.

She'd have to find a way to find Rei, first, before anything like that could happen, though.

... Or maybe not. Maybe, instead of trying to hunt her down, it would be better to take another route. Make a spectacle, and have her come to investigate it, arriving right where Ranma wanted her, without having to bother with an extended search.

That could work. She looked up, almost able to see the portals even through the thick roof put into place.

... Fine then. She spoke a command, and felt the palace shudder as it lifted up, hordes of Heartless flocking on board. This was a bad idea. And she knew it was a bad idea. But it was still the only idea she had.

The portal bulged outwards as the palace approached, and the highest spire poked through. Beatrix warped in, to kneel before the throne, followed by others. One which gave a sense of being heavily armored, carrying a heavy sword which seemed to glow as though it had just been pulled from the fire, and stank of blood. One which seemed female, and carried a similarly heavy sword, etched with runes. The last was tall, and eschewed the theme of blades for a spear, with three points.

Beatrix, Ranma already knew, holding her treasured blade. It's only a moments effort, before the castle clears the Between, however, to pluck the information from the minds of the others. Cecil, the Black Knight, though he seems to be missing a great deal, holds the Blood Blade. A name which implies exactly the function of the weapon, healing the weilder with every foe struck down. Agrias, once another guardian of a princess, again fallen in another line of duty. She carries a simpler weapon, a Runic Blade like unto many, which could simply be purchased for coin on her world. A great deal of coin, admittedly, but nothing like the priceless artifacts the others bore. Still magical in its own right, though, and it would not be impossible to replace, should things come to that. And Kimahri, who was never human at all, but some manner of beast-person, sworn and devoted to guarding...

Well, not a princess, but close. It's an odd predisposition, that so many guardians of royalty are almost, but not quite, strong willed enough to pull themselves free of the darkness on their own. Even so, Kimahri's spear is powerful indeed. He knows it as 'Gungnir'. It strikes a bell with her, but not loudly. No matter.

The castle settles in the sky, and Ranma steps forward, ignoring the twisting pit below, slowly sealing as teeming hordes pile through.

"REEEEEEEEEEIIII!" She howls into empty space, cold and uncaring blue stone far below.

There is no answer, of course, but it was the last thing to be done. Both plea and demand, request and instruction. She is here. She will remain here, and, sooner or later, Rei will arrive. No matter how many others she will have to turn away in the time being.

Ranma settles back into the hard, stony throne, to wait.

AN.

Not dead. Myself or this, as it happens. Just doing other things.

Finally gave up on the vs. Cloud fight scene, since I kept re-writing it and it was shit every time. Instead, you get slightly expanded Beatrix backstory. Hooray. Shot through the whole chapter all at once once I finally threw that out, though I'll admit it's comparatively kinda short.