Coolon flew the group as close as it could to Mayfil, the only Winglie city ever built on the ground, but soon it stopped and landed. "The sky is saturated with unsent souls. I can't fly though them, as my wings are still new," it explained, and then apologized.
Paine stepped off first. "Don't worry about it, Coolon," she said, and waited for the others to step off the flying, magical manta ray. "We may need you if this goes badly, and tiring yourself out by flying through the souls is a bad idea. We can fly ourselves from here," she said, and called forth her Dragoon wings. Everyone else followed suit, and Lexaeus lifted Xaldin as they flew out.
A ten-minute flight later, they stood at the entrance of the city, watching the towers smoke and hearing the souls cry out. Demyx whimpered a little, and even Xigbar looked uneasy at the thought of having to go in there.
Paine muttered, "Over 11,000 years and it still leads souls to hell." She then turned to either side and saw the rest of her friends looking to her, waiting for their usual history lesson. She gave them all a weary smile. "When there were still Winglies here, they used to suck souls from all over the world into the towers. From there, they decided the destination of their souls."
Zexion spoke up, asking, "Shouldn't this have been destroyed during the Dragon Campaign?"
Xaldin interrupted, "Aglis and Zenebatos were working, though, Zexion. It shouldn't be that strange."
But Paine shook her head. "No," she said, "We demolished this place, along with the death of the demon, Zackwell. It was one of our first major victories. I'd have to assume that it's still a path to the world beyond, and the souls that can't completely die gather here. It's why Coolon can't fly through them- they're vindictive."
Lexaeus crossed his arms over his chest and grunted, "I don't like this."
Xion then said, "As long as the Moon is in the sky, we're fine, though, right?"
Paine nodded. The other Dragoons gave a quiet sigh of relief. All, except Axel.
He called to the rest of them, saying, "The Signet Sphere is still safe, but we still have to get there before… Dart."
"What was it with ancient Winglies and making their cities like a maze?" Demyx groaned.
Xion smiled over at him and said, "They did it to make you ask questions."
"What kind of excuse is that?" Demyx said. "They could have done a lot of things differently and I would still be asking questions!"
They walked through the paths of Mayfil for hours. The city walls, black with age, loomed over them; more than once, Demyx flew to the top of the walls to see how close they were to the middle.
"Why can't we just fly right to the Signet?"
Paine shook her head. "The souls saturate the air above ground too much to fly- at the very least, Xion and I would have a hard time with them," she said.
Xion growled. "Making at stab at women, Rose?"
"No. It would be the same if Roxas were still the White-Silver Dragoon," she said, and looked over to Axel, whose shoulders dropped minutely at the sound of his lover's name. "It has to do with our elements, Xion. The risk involved with encountering demons here… it's not worth the risk, to try and get to the Signet faster."
"Besides- if you were hurt, we'd have to stop," Xaldin said to Xion.
Paine nodded. She then turned fully to Xion and said, "On a completely unrelated note, don't refer to me with that name ever again."
Xion was about to nod when a collection of screams stopped everyone and they looked around, trying to find the source. The group looked to Paine for an explanation, but she held up her hand for everyone to stay quiet. Xaldin brandished the Dragon Buster and pulled himself back-to-back against Axel and Xigbar while Demyx, Xion, and Zexion stayed close to Lexaeus in a tight square. She stood alone, listening more than looking for the source of the screams.
From above, she felt through the Darkness Dragon.
"Scatter!" Paine called, and the Dragoons only just managed to dodge the surge of souls that dived down at them. Axel and Xigbar had grabbed one each of Xaldin's shoulders, while Lexaeus pulled Xion back and Demyx carried Zexion into the air.
Paine reached back, ready to summon her sword to her hand, but then she got a good look at the souls that attacked them.
Each and every one of them had a green sphere in their forehead.
"Moon tainted," she said.
Axel looked at them. There were hundreds of souls there- maybe thousands- all with that green sphere glowing in their heads, and he wondered for a moment if that was what his soul looked like.
They started advancing toward Paine, and chanting and screeching, "Black Monster's dead. Like us," over and over again.
Demyx yelled out for Paine when the souls charged again.
Paine summoned her armor and created the Aura Cloak, stopping the souls immediately. Her voice boomed out, "Hate me if you want, but I cannot die now," and the souls were dissolved by her aura. She looked quickly around herself, seeing that they were all gone, and whispered to the winds, "Please, wait until this is over. I will gladly pass on then."
The other Dragoons slowly floated down to her side, silent. She looked past them all, dismissed her armor, and kept walking deeper into Mayfil.
The maze continued on and the Dragoons still could not find the way. No matter what direction they went in, the road before them twisted and forked and never ended and seemed to bring them back to places they had already been. And, apart from the complex and hellish nightmare they were in, the group began to find that many devilish monsters seemed to appear and disappear in the blink of an eye. Attacking or not, they were slowing the Dragoons down to a crawl.
And then the ground turned against them.
In fact it happened so suddenly and silently that it took the entire group several minutes before they realized that one of their own was missing. They reached another fork, this one split five ways, and Paine turned to direct the team in a certain way, she noticed that Demyx was no longer among them.
"Pair up and find him," she ordered. "Axel, Zexion, with me. Xigbar, Lexaeus. Xion, keep and eye on Xaldin."
"Where the hell could he have gone?" Xion muttered as she darted away from the group, Xaldin jumping to keep up. Everyone else darted here and there trying to find where Demyx could have gone. Without so much of a warning, Xion let out a shriek of surprise and terror before she too vanished from sight.
It would have been comical, if they were not in the City of the Dead. Xion had been only a few feet from him when it happened. She pushed off hard with one foot and swiftly found that there was no floor for the other. Without any way of stopping she had plummeted through the invisible gap in the floor.
"What just happened?" Axel yelled in Xaldin's direction and the others all crowded around the spot where Xion had just been. Pain threw out her arm catching Axel around the chest and stopping him. Her eyes shifted from the cursing red head to the floor they were standing on.
It was impossible that she had over looked this! Pain had been leading based on some memory of the place during the old times. But she and the old group had flown around the city, not walked it. It was genius, she thought spitefully; leave it to the Winglies to rig a floor like this.
The others looked to Paine explained to them what was wrong. When they had reached the area, none of them thought it odd that pale blue and white souls were randomly shooting upwards from the floor towards the sky. It was clear now that was a big mistake. As the souls shot upwards from the hell's darkness they collided rather violently with some invisible force- the floor. On impact they would create a brilliant burst of light illuminating the square; in other spots they would pass through the floor and into the sky, indicating that there was no floor where they passed through.
"It's an invisible floor, crafted by Winglies to keep humans from walking through their city," Paine said, grinding her teeth. How did she not see this before? "Look around for the areas where souls hit, they will show us the floor."
"Xion! Demyx!" Xaldin was the only one not listening; while they stood around talking about the obvious, two of their numbers had been swallowed up by the darkness below. He knelt down beside the tile Xion had been standing on before and called out again, hoping they'd be able to hear him.
"We're down here!" Demyx yelled. Xaldin's heart skipped a beat and he let out a sigh of relief. "Watch out! I think the floor is missing in places." Paine stopped her history lesson and looked back down at the floor.
"Do you see anyway up?" Axel yelled to them.
"No it's really dark down here. Demyx is right next to me- we've got each other's hand- but I can't see him," Xion called back. There was a strange note in her voice that made Xaldin's heart sink further than it already was. "I think there-"
The group listened for a few seconds but there were no other sounds from below.
Xigbar and Zexion called out but neither Xion nor Demyx called back. "What the hell is going on here?" Axel demanded looking to Paine. Xaldin stood up, his mind was set and he knew what he was going to do. He took one step back and before Paine could devise a plan, he stepped onto the tile.
"Xaldin! You idiot!" Xigbar yelled at the same moment. He had made a wild grab for the other but just missed catching the back of Xaldin's armor. Xigbar's own attempt to stop Xaldin almost caused him to fall, he was caught by Axel and Paine.
He hit something solid- a floor?- a few minutes later and then looked up. There was no doubt in his mind he must have fallen quite a ways, at least as long as the castle back in Bale was tall but maybe even twice that, but he landed as lightly as he would have if he had stepped off the curb. His gaze shifted and he looked around but Demyx had been right; he could not see a damn thing, he could not even see his hand on his face.
"Xion! Demyx?" When no one answered he drew the dragon buster off his back. To his surprise the sword began to glow in a very faint white light. He paused and a very gut-wrenching feeling filled his body. As far as he could recall the sword had only glowed like this once- when it was going through his chest. He swallowed hard and looked around.
The Dragon buster was very unique in the sense that it only glowed if an enemy dragon or dragoon was nearby, as all the dragoons were his companions there was only one alternative to why it was glowing. As he made this conclusion, Xaldin could hear a soft hissing sound, like acid eating away at the ground.
His feet slid out as he took the sword in both his hands. Something familiar was near, he could sense it.
From the darkness a ghostly blue form began to walk toward him. A cross between a praying mantis and a reptile, the hulking phantom form of the poisonous swamp dragon began to take shape. Xaldin's eyes narrowed and his shoulders locked. How long had it been since he had seen this creature? Two, three years? When he had cast it down in that hell hole he never dreamed that he would be facing him again.
"Fitting," he muttered. Feyrbrand stopped before him. Was it strange that he could not hear any sound from the beast? That each of its thunderous steps which had caused men to cower in life, made no noise and no vibrations in death?
"XALDIN WHAT THE HELL IS THIS THING!" Demyx cried from one of Feyrbrand's claws- Xion was struggling next to him, held in the same grip. The ghost of the Venom dragon refused to let its prey go.
"The dragon Feyrbrand, the first dragon that we killed as a team back in South Serido. He was the dragon that was controlled by the Jade Dragoon before I got the stone," Xaldin explained, and took a stance with the Dragon Buster in both hands. A knot formed in his chest almost at once. It's not his stone anymore- the Jade Dragon Spirit is Zexion's.
Since he had returned to his companions he had avoided the topic and pushed away any questions about it. He no longer had the Jade Dragoon, the dragon that had brought him power and strength. It hurt, knowing that even though he wasn't injured anymore, the Dragon wouldn't take him back. Laying in the castle ward, he had always thought about it. Would the Dragoon come back to him? Was he even worthy of such a power?
He still possessed some of the power it had graced him with but not enough to be useful. He was as much help as Riku was; utterly useless in the battle to save Roxas.
Xion screamed and he woke from his thoughts in time to see Feyrbrand's scythe-like claw tear down on him. Swiftly he dodged left and felt the air rush by his back. Demyx and Xion were in danger. He needed to stop thinking about anything else.
Xion was in danger.
At the time of battling him they had never really discovered what the dragon's weak point was. They were too busy trying to battle both a dragon and a dragoon. The only thing they had noticed a disadvantage was its speed. Speed. Xaldin dodged back again then dived past the claws towards the dragon's legs.
The Dragon Buster had been low at his right leg, as he dived under Feyrbrand he brought it up from lower right to upper left. To his utter disbelief the dragon's leg split open spilling out ghostly white blood.
Feyrbrand let out a silent scream and tried to sit on him. Xaldin was pleased to see that this time around, he was faster than the dragon. In a rage the beast hurled Demyx and Xion away. They hit the ground and rolled for a bit before coming to a stop a ways from the fight. Demyx recovered first and darted forward as he flung a spell right at the dragon's chest. The spell rushed through the dragon's ghostly form and almost hit Xaldin. He had not been paying attention and was bringing the sword up for a second strike, and only just deflected the attack.
"HEY!" He roared towards Demyx.
"I'm sorry!" the teen cried looking shocked and concerned. "My spell went right through him!"
"Well don't try it again!" he yelled as he danced around the dragon's attacks. Xaldin backed away from the dragon then turned ready to make his next move. A burst of fire rained down from the sky but like Demyx's attack, it did nothing. Xaldin watched as the fire passed through Feyrbrand's head and blasted against the floor.
Feyrbrand turned and twitched his backside in and flung a tide of sticky webbing. It struck Axel and Xigbar as they were flying in and pinned them to the ground. "Not cool man!" Xigbar yelled as he tried to pull the sticky secretion off. "We can't attack it but it can attack us?"
Using the intrusion to his advantage, Xaldin lunged forward and drove the blade into the lowest part of the beast's torso. Feyrbrand thrashed about trying to toss out the blade and finish Xaldin at the same time.
"Not this time, dragon," the man growled. He drew the sword out to the right and jumped on the closest leg and began to climb up the dragon's side. Feyrbrand knew at once what Xaldin was going to do and began to thrash about. The dragon's arms whipped around and it bucked in every direction it could.
Xaldin held on to its back with his left hand and kept a very tight grip on the Dragon Buster in his other. If he thought the dragon would give up so easily he was wrong. With no physical form and nothing but pure spirit and energy, Feyrbrand was able to flail around much more violently with every passing second. Xaldin would have a good strike if he waited, and he held on until the moment was right.
As Feyrbrand punched forward, his face almost touching the ground Xaldin let go allowing himself to be flung close to fifty feet into the air. It was time to use the spell he had been perfecting ever since he awoke. He pushed the Dragon Buster high into the air and focused. Wind energy began to form around the blade. As his assent stopped and gravity took hold he flung the sword downwards. "Air Blade!"
Infused with the Dragon Buster's power, the blade of wind blasted downwards and cut the dragon in half. The battle was still far from over. Feyrbrand was still moving and still fighting. Xladin braced himself and landed twenty feet away from the ghost dragon.
The landing was harder than when he originally dived from above and it took him a moment to get back to his feet. He turned to Feyrbrand and saw something happening. The dragon's soul was becoming corrupt.
It was no longer pale blue and transparent but black and slimy looking. Its features looked like they were perpetually melting off his body. White bones were visible underneath the muck and it began to let out a hissing cry. It was now that Xaldin could hear the voice.
"Help me! Please!" Its eyes flittered around the room. Xion was helping Demyx get Axel and Xigbar out of the webbing, and Paine, Lexaeus, and Zexion were obviously still up on the surface. Xaldin figured it could only be talking to him, when it said, "Release me."
"From what?" Xaldin muttered.
"The darkness… The curse…" Xaldin looked forward. Something grew inside his chest, it was familiar. The same feeling as when the Jade Dragoon had called for him. There was a reason why none of the others could hurt it; there was reason why Feyrbrand was attacking him. He grip the sword in both hands and made his final charge.
The cursed soul dragon reared up and let out a roar that was more like an echoing cry of one chocking on blood. Feet from the creature, Xaldin drew the blade back and as its head snapped outwards he attacked.
Like the blade had done to him once, it cleaved through the dragon's neck. The light came back, the air became less stale and heavy, the dragon had gone and the effects of Feyrbrand's attacks died away.
The five of them looked around, and saw Paine, Zexion, and Lexaeus standing nearby. They waved to each other, and carefully made their way back to the fork where they had been when they first noticed that Demyx had been missing.
"What was that?" Xion asked keeping her eyes on Xaldin.
"Feyrbrand…" he muttered.
"It appears that even the souls of the dragons are caught here," Pain said getting up and taking a few steps towards Xaldin. "You're the one who killed Feyrbrand and his former master the first time," she continued, "Like many of the souls here, it was burning with regret and hatred."
Xaldin finally sheathed the Dragon Buster and shrugged. "Feyrbrand had asked to be released," he said calmly and slowly as if he was commenting on the weather. He did not look at his companions. His heart had once again connected with the spirit of a dragon and for the first time since losing the Jade Dragoon, he felt content.
Paine turned them all forward and selected the path straight ahead. They continued to walk, but only made it a few steps each when Xaldin stopped. Xion and Demyx walked into him. Demyx almost fell backwards onto the floor, but Xion steadied him before he could.
"What's wrong?" Xigbar asked. This question made the others look towards Xaldin. He was staring over his shoulder to where the hole in the floor had been. Everyone watched in shock as a poisonous green orb floated nearby.
Without knowing why Xaldin turned and extended his right hand as if to catch something. "No way," he thought. "It can't be." The small toxic green light paused in the air and shot right for his hand. It glowed fiercely as if relieved and glad to see him.
And then, he heard it.
You have my powers now. Thank you.
Paine pushed past everyone and stared at the stone now shining ecstatically in Xaldin's hand.
"Is that...?" Xion asked.
Xaldin nodded, and held the Spirit of Feyrbrand gingerly in his palm.
I have been waiting for you to find me again. Trapped for so long by the curse of the devils. The voice was a little deeper and gruffer then that of the Jade Dragon but just as airy. I knew you would find me.
Xaldin looked up at Paine who was still staring at the stone and raised his eyebrows in silent question.
"I thought only powerful Dragons would produce a dragoon," Axel asked looking to Paine.
"Any Dragon's soul can become a Dragoon stone, but it is only when the Dragon feels a desire to continue to fight." She looked at Xaldin who knew exactly what to do. The others backed away as Xaldin summoned the spirit of Feyrbrand.
A powerful wind whipped out around him, followed by poison filled leaf blades. The armor flashed into existence. He could not believe that the armor was so similar to what he had as the former Jade Dragoon. The armor was the style of a fighter, heavy around the body as a whole but with ease of movement at all the joints. There were a few differences. The armor was not jade color but a toxic green with a mix of yellow markings. The dragon buster still remained on his back but Xaldin was determined to know what he was capable of doing.
He threw out both his arms and felt thin, aerodynamic lances appear in each hand.
"So what would your dragoon be called?" Demyx interrupted but he bounced around looking eager. "Toxic... something?"
"The Venom Forest Dragoon?" Axel suggested with a shrug.
"Nah, his dragon is also wind based," Xigbar said with a smile. Xladin frowned, was everyone now going to try and assign his Dragoon an name?
"Just call it the Venom Dragoon; we're wasting time," Xion said impatiently.
Xaldin let the armor and weapons fade in a flash of dark green light. He glanced at Xion; he now wanted to be called the Venom Dragoon.
"I still don't understand why you're doing this!"
Dart looked down at the blond whose arm he held tightly and smirked. "You, of all people, should understand. It appeals to what you are; total destruction!"
Roxas growled. "I'm not the Virage Embryo!" Then, he gasped, and clutched at his chest. The Light glowed fiercely through his hands and he soon fell to his knees and bit his lip to keep from screaming.
But the old man just laughed. "And the more you deny it, the more the Embryo will remind you who is the man and who is the god," he said. He looked up at the Moon and continued, "And once this last Signet is destroyed…"
The Light dimmed down, though Roxas's breathing hadn't quite returned to normal. He listened to Dart talk to himself; he caught words like "servants" and "sleep" but nothing really clicked until he felt Dart's hand close around his throat and the other cover his eyes. More muttering- that's no human language- and Roxas felt his body relax and drift.
He couldn't keep his eyes open, but he was awake. He felt and heard everything but could not will his body to respond. Dart dropped him in a heap on the ground and turned him over with his foot, then said, "You will succumb to the will of the Virage Embryo. You can't keep it in forever. And, your first kill, my god, will be the Dragoons."
Then, he laughed and walked away.
Roxas knew that they must be pretty close behind. He and Dart had been moving at such a fast pace but he could have sworn a few times that he heard Xion a time or two. They would find him, crumpled however Dart had left him, and Axel would stop and check on him, fuss and probably start a fight with Paine (or is it Rose, the way that Dart refers to her?). They'd waste precious time fighting over whether or not to kill him and by then, it'd be too late. Dart was going to destroy the last Signet, and Roxas was the perfect delay for the Dragoons.
He felt a single tear slip down his cheek.
And, he was right. They had been close. He was probably laying there for about ten minutes before he heard his name called and the sounds of a scuffle. He heard Paine- Rose?- say, "Take the Spirit. If we need to, it'll be easier to kill them both if Axel's unarmed."
A moment later, he felt someone shake his shoulder and then a weight on his chest. "C'mon, Roxas, wake up!"
He wanted to scream. He wanted to tell Axel to get away from him, because the Embryo wanted everyone destroyed, and even he wouldn't be safe. Nothing was working.
"Wait, I think I can-"
Demyx? Something was tickling along his chest.
"What are you doing?" That was Xion. She was still with them.
"I recognize this. It's a winglie spell that force-mimics sleep," Demyx said, and slowly, Roxas could feel his body waking up.
"Mimics?" Lexaeus's low rumbling voice came.
"He's awake right now?" And Zexion.
Had no one gone ahead? Roxas tried to make a fist and was pleased when his fingers tightened a little.
There was no reply from Demyx, just silence. Axel's hands hadn't left him, and as nice as it was, they shouldn't be here. They should be going after Dart.
The weight that kept his eyes closed lifted. His throat felt scratchy, and he turned onto his side and coughed. Then, he looked around, at all of the Dragoons, and groaned.
Axel gathered him in a hug, and he forgot why he was angry.
Axel was here.
Demyx was sitting back against Zexion's legs, wringing his hands together. Xion was kneeling next to him and was healing him gently- whatever he had done to lift the spell Dart had cast, it hurt him back.
Lexaeus, Xigbar, Xaldin, and Paine stared at the two of them. Child and Servant; Roxas couldn't quite get his head around the upset look in all four sets of eyes.
He turned back around to face Axel. He smiled- gods, those eyes. Dart had similar ones, and Roxas had tried to find comfort in recognizing the similarities, but in the end it was never the same and he had to revert to his own memories. He lifted a hand and brushed his fingers against Axel's face and whispered, "You're real," because he honestly had dreamed about this happening since Dart took him the second time and because he knew that he would get a chuckle from his lover if he said it.
"You are, too. Imagine that." Axel leaned down and kissed him and everything felt right and the screaming of the souls around them silenced for just a moment.
And then, the Embryo decided to make itself known.
Roxas clenched his teeth together and felt wave after wave of pain rip through his chest. This was worse than the last time and he curled in on himself as his eyelids burned from the Light shining bright from his chest as well as his forehead, which hadn't happened in a while. The hum of the Light echoed in his head and he faintly heard Axel screaming for him while another voice was hissing and it sounded like it was coming from his stomach.
His chest felt like it was going to explode. He tried to think of anything other than the Embryo, and clutched at Axel's shirt, up and up until he realized that they had taken Axel's Dragoon Spirit. He bit his tongue to keep from screaming and then ground out, "Spirit. Her."
Roxas heard them talk as the hissing became louder, and then the Light was overcome by White and he heard her again, softly speaking again in his ear. Xion was kneeling next to him as he opened his eyes and she was pressing the White-Silver Dragon against his chest. The white light was welcome and warm as he gasped for breath, suddenly aware that he hadn't been breathing during the episode, and fisted Axel's shirt. He could hear the Dragon soothing him again, telling him to stay strong and in control before fading away as the Embryo was knocked back under his own consciousness.
Axel's arms tightened around him as he relaxed and murmured a "thanks" to Xion for understanding exactly what he needed.
"What was that?" Roxas looked over at Paine, who had drawn her sword. Xigbar, besides her, was also in a fighting stance.
He looked back up at Axel, inhaled deeply, and then pulled out of his arms. He stood up and stumbled away from all the Dragoons. He couldn't be near them. What if the Embryo took over completely?
"You all… the Signet. Dart's at the Signet," he said. He was a little hoarse from screaming and he coughed more.
A hand on his shoulder- Roxas pushed it off and looked up at Axel.
What didn't they understand?
"Rox, what just happened?"
"What do you think?" he snapped. He shook his head and the world started spinning a bit. What the…? The Embryo hadn't ever caused dizziness or vertigo before. He focused on Paine, felt the wall steady behind him, and said to her, "It's the last one. If he gets this one, you have to kill us both."
He felt Axel stiffen beside him, but he didn't pay any further mind to it. She nodded, and said, "Demyx, Xigbar, and Lexaeus- stay here with Axel and Roxas. Zexion, Xion, and Xaldin- you're with me. We'll go to the Signet. Axel," his lover turned to her, "your team is responsible for getting Roxas out of Mayfil. Any means necessary. We'll protect the Signet."
Roxas shivered and looked to the left, where Dart had gone after leaving him, and where he now stood again. Axel pulled him off the wall and against his back and looked quickly over to Xigbar, who threw the Red-Eye Spirit to him.
"The Moon's still in the sky, Dart!" Paine said.
"Until it falls, we still have time," Xion added.
Dart laughed, and looked at Roxas. Roxas stepped out from behind Axel's back, but his hand was grabbed before he could get too far. "The Moon Gem takes time," Dart said, "but the Signet's as good as broken."
He took two steps forward, and the Dragoons all took a step back.
The crazy smirk was back on the man's face. Roxas felt his stomach start to slip.
"I just came back to watch the show."
"What show?" Demyx asked. He and Xion stood next to Xigbar.
Dart just stared. Paine took a step and a half forward, and called her armor to her. "You're not taking Roxas again. We'll keep running. You'll expire eventually."
"I won't have to, Rose," he said. "Take him, I mean. After this, of course, he'll want to come with me."
"After what?" Xion asked.
Roxas felt his breath quicken again. His grip on Axel's hand slacked and his knees started to weaken. He heard his name, again, by a few different voices.
In the distance, he heard glass shattering.
The Signet! He gasped and felt the clenching in his chest and heard the humming in his head.
"Get back! Axel, get away from him!"
That was important.
He needed to protect Axel.
His chest exploded. The Light was blinding.
Axel was dragged away from Roxas- either by Xigbar or Lexaeus- kicking and screaming. That was his lover, screaming his name, screaming for him, and he couldn't do anything but fight against the arms pulling him away.
That blue light kept expanding from his chest and covering his whole body. Axel kept thrashing, Roxas kept screaming, and Dart kept laughing.
"Too late again, Rose! With the Signets all shattered, the only barrier the Embryo has to break through is the boy's own," Dart said. "And, we can all see, that's not very strong at all, is it?"
Roxas was holding the Virage Embryo back?
"Take the Spirit, Xigbar!"
"I'll hold him; kill Roxas." Paine and Xigbar both met each other's eye, and she nodded. The Darkness Dragon's armor surrounded her, and she dove forward, blade first.
Axel's Spirit stayed around his neck.
Demyx screamed. "PAINE!"
Roxas's hand rose and pressed against the tip of her sword. His chin was tucked against his chest; the Light slowly faded.
Dart's laughing stopped, but the smile didn't leave his face.
The other Dragoons watched as Paine struggled to pull her sword away from Roxas's palm, their faces all mirroring the same confusion as the person to each side. Axel stopped thrashing, watching the display.
Paine whimpered. "Roxas…?"
Each Dragoon took a step away. Even Dart put one foot back to brace himself for the unknown reaction of the Virage Embryo. Roxas's head lifted, and Axel's heart stopped.
Those weren't Roxas's eyes. There wasn't even a pupil anymore, just an eerie light blue, the same color the Light had always been. His mouth was in a relaxed line, and his head tilted to the side as the Virage Embryo pushed. Paine flew back into the wall behind them. Xion rushed toward her, armor shining into place as she ran. Xaldin and Zexion followed her while Demyx, Lexaeus, and Xigbar took their armor and weapons to hand and backed up even further.
"Axel! Get back!"
He stood still where Xigbar had been holding him back before. Five steps forward, and he could be next to Roxas, or seven backwards and he'd be with Xigbar and the others. Xion was healing Paine, the white light blinding and stinging as it healed. Axel took a step closer to Demyx, but didn't look away from Roxas.
Dart chuckled. "My God! You've awakened!"
Axel took the Red-Eyed Dragon Spirit off his neck and threw it back to Xaldin. Axel knew he was now a liability to the continuation of the world.
"I require a stronger body," Roxas- no, the Virage Embryo- said. It sounded just like him, though. "This child still resists me."
"With the Signets broken, your flesh will fall from the sky soon," Dart said. He took a few tentative steps toward the Embryo and smiled. "You'll have a new body; a much stronger one. The one you were meant to have."
Axel felt Demyx and Lexaeus on either side of him, Demyx hovering and pushing his wings back and forth every so often and Lexaeus steady on the ground. The Virage Embryo looked over. Its eyes were blank and maybe the shade of blue was close to what it should be but it wasn't- no, wait. The eyes shifted for a moment, and there was a pupil and whites again. Roxas was still in there, fighting against the God of Destruction.
He suddenly felt a surge of hope that maybe Roxas could beat it and they'd be able to find a way to exorcise the soul of the Virage Embryo before it destroyed everything.
But the Embryo extended Roxas's hand toward Axel, unperturbed by the shift in its eyes and said, "My servant, come to me."
Every fiber in his being said to walk forward. He may have even stumbled toward Roxas, but Demyx's hand on his shoulder reminded him of what he was doing.
Oh, shit, it looked angry. Not Roxas-angry; this look was more like Roxas-furious.
"I said, come."
"N-No," Axel said. He shoved Demyx's hand off because he had to prove to everyone- to himself- that he wasn't a slave to the God of Destruction. All this time, he hadn't been following the Virage Embryo's host. He'd been following Roxas.
Dart smirked. "You should give in. It'll hurt less."
"No." The Embryo turned fully toward him, and held up both of Roxas's hands. That same push that it had turned on Paine before, it then turned on Demyx and Lexaeus. Axel felt the energy pass his body, and turned quickly to watch as both of them skidded along the ground to slow and eventually stop thirty paces from him. Xigbar flew over to them to check up, but they were only stunned, not hurt.
"You want to be by my side," the Embryo said. It wasn't questioning him, but stating the fact.
Axel decided to be truthful. "Yes. I… always have."
Its face turned from furious to neutral again. "You always will be." The hand extended again, and it continued, "My servants are always safe, by my side. You will live in Soa's new world."
It smiled briefly, and Roxas's eyes came through again. Axel's breath caught in his throat, because if the God of Destruction promised him Roxas, he might give in to the tugging to be next to it.
"You may live with him."
Axel took a stumble forward, and then turned to the Dragoons, locked on to Xigbar, and mouthed the words: Kill Me.
Xigbar raised his guns and shot a blast at him.
It never hit him.
The Embryo's hand was up again, pointing toward Axel. He felt the humming of the God's power, blocking the blast for him.
"Your answer, servant?"
The Dragoons were calling for him, and Axel knew his answer.
It narrowed Roxas's eyes. Stalked toward him, shoved everyone around to the ground and kept them there. Axel fought against the force of the Embryo, but it pushed him down to his knees as it got closer. He noticed that even Dart was thrown to the ground.
Right in front of him, the Virage Embryo put Roxas's hand on the top of his head.
"If you will not serve me, then you are of no use and will perish with this world."
The tugging stopped. Axel felt the humming of the Light pulse against his forehead.
"You are cast aside," he heard, "you will not be spared."
He was watching himself die, watching all his friends die, watching everyone he'd ever met die. With each new death before him he felt his breath catch and his head started to pound. And, with each time he died, he felt the presence of the Embryo get farther and farther away.
He tried to reach out for it, that comfort that had been with him the past eighteen years. The comfort of knowing that he lived for something, even if he didn't know what it was.
Xigbar strained against the magic hold that the Virage Embryo had on them, and watched as his nephew held back cries and struggled to maintain sanity. He called over to Paine and asked, "What's happening?"
She called back, "I think the Virage Embryo is taking away the Moon taint!"
"That's good, though, right?" Xion asked.
"You fools!" Dart laughed. "The Moon taint is what gives a servant the will to live! Once someone has it, to take it away is to take away what he strives for!"
Xigbar watched as the Embryo stepped away from Axel, who was still kneeling on the ground where he'd been pushed to before. It turned to Dart, and Xigbar watched it walk away from Axel.
It was a sight he thought he'd never see- Roxas walking away from Axel.
Axel hadn't moved. His head was still tilted slightly upwards, like he was looking at a horizon that didn't exist and his arms hung loosely at his sides. He swayed forwards and backwards slightly, like he were reeling from an attack and still recovering.
"You will take me to my flesh," the Embryo said, and Dart stood up and nodded.
"Are you sure you do not wish to kill these hindrances, first?"
"This body resists what I have done," it said. It tightened its fists and turned back to look at the Dragoons.
Xigbar heard that and yelled, "ROXAS! WAKE UP!"
Dart nodded and grabbed Roxas's shoulder.
Xion gasped as Xigbar flinched and they met eyes briefly. She saw it too.
Roxas was still in there, somewhere. As Dart vanished them away, and the force that had been holding them down lifted, Xigbar watched as a tear slipped down Roxas's face and he reached out, just slightly, to where Axel knelt.
Xigbar dismissed his armor and scrambled to Axel's side. He knelt down and shook Axel's shoulders, but Axel just bobbed along like a doll. "Gods, Axel," he breathed. "Xion, get over here and see what you can do for him."
She flew over to his side and started her healing spells while Lexaeus, Zexion, and Demyx stood back with Paine and Xaldin. They watched on as Xion worked with the White-Silver Dragon to try and get Axel coherent again, but still he stayed there blank and still.
Slowly, the other Dragoons moved closer and Demyx trotted closer and added his Dragon's healing to the cause, but he pulled back quickly and changed tactics and instead worked with winglie magic. Xion pulled back after a while and sat back on her heels while Demyx drew symbols in the air and pressed them against Axel's chest a few times.
And then, he sat back too. "Whatever Roxas did, it's bad, guys."
"That wasn't Roxas," Xigbar snarled.
"What is it, Demyx? Xion?" Zexion asked.
He and Xion each shook their heads and he looked back at Zexion and sighed. "From what I can tell, Dart was right. He's just… a shell of Axel."
"His brain's still working, enough that he's breathing and his heart's pumping, but there's just nothing else going on," Xion said. "Seriously, it'd be better for him if we just-"
"If you finish that sentence with 'kill him,' I'll do it to you," Xigbar seethed. Xion intelligently shut her mouth, but Paine placed her hand on Xigbar's shoulder and stepped by him to kneel in front of Axel.
She tipped his head down so that they were looking eye-to-eye, though she knew that he wasn't registering anything sensual right now, and she said, "I had mistaken you for Dart, once, before I knew he was still alive." She looked around to the other Dragoons and one at a time, they broke apart from the group and left her and Axel alone in the middle of the city street. "I used to love him, and after the Dragon Campaign ended and I was sure he was dead, I didn't know what to do with myself. I was ready to do what you're doing right now, just wait for death to take me and end the suffering. It's terrifying, not knowing what to do with your life after what you've been living for is ripped away.
"But you still have a chance," she whispered. "Roxas is still in there, and you can still save him; we can still save him. I thought, once, that I could have had a second chance with Dart in a way, through you, but you and your father are similar in at least one way. You both love dangerously and completely and I know that you can have that again with Roxas; unlike Dart, who will never get to see Shana." She placed her hand against his forehead and closed her eyes.
It was the only winglie spell she had ever learned, and Cloud had taught it to her as a "just in case" measure, that this situation should ever come along.
"You calm the insanity of living for eleven thousand years, the insanity of creeping so close to darkness and death, the insanity of the dragon in me. I need you, Axel. Wake up."
She drew the symbols and pushed them against her own chest as Demyx ran to her screaming for her to stop, that there had to be a better way. She felt him pull against her wrists but with the spell already cast, her magic held fast against his meager physical strength.
Her choker ripped and the blackish purple magic contained within it surged into Axel with a whoosh of air and pushed him backwards to sway, but she took his hands and waited out the transfer. And when it was over and the Darkness Dragon Spirit lay in a sphere in her hands with hundreds of scraps of leather fluttering to the ground around then, Axel gasped and pitched forward onto his hands and she put her arms around his back in the most awkward hug she'd ever given anyone ever. He coughed and groaned like he'd been knocked out, and then he looked up at her and his eyes were bright and she smiled and brought him into a proper hug as he hung against her chest dumbstruck and trying to form words.
"But… the Vir- … It … Paine …"
"I'll have to give the other half to Roxas when we get him back," she whispered into his ear. She pulled him away to arm's length and sniffled and blinked away tears.
"Shh, just stop trying." She waved Xion over and left Axel in her hands as she stood up and turned around.
And promptly walked right into Demyx, who stood still with his arms crossed and his eyes narrowed. "I should have figured you'd know some winglie magic, but we could have done something else, Paine."
She shook her head as the white light from Xion's Spirit healed Axel the rest of the way that Paine's own spell couldn't quite fix. "It's not an issue anymore, Demyx. Axel's back, right? That's what's important right now," she said, her voice clearly warning him to drop the subject altogether. He shook his head and watched as Xigbar and Xaldin made sure that Axel was alright before pointing at Paine.
"You'd better make sure that Roxas gets through this."
"Or I'll kill you myself for doing this to him," he whispered, and then walked past her to check on Axel himself.
She breathed deeply and watched the souls fly above their heads. She knew the risks and the consequences, and that if she couldn't give the other half of her life force to Roxas at some point, then even if they do save him Axel will have no choice but to watch him age while Axel…
Axel will stay young for a very long time.
If, of course, the world was still spinning at the end of all of this.
After Axel was well enough to stand and Xigbar had appropriately strangled him with hugs, they began their walk back to Coolon. Paine led the way, closely followed by Lexaeus and Zexion to either side. Axel, with Xaldin and Xion on his right and Xigbar on his left, followed her and bringing up the rear was Demyx, flying with winglie wings and scowling at Paine when he wasn't maintaining his distance from Axel.
They almost made it back to Coolon when the ground rumbled and the souls began to scream even louder than before. Demyx looked up and watched them scurry into buildings and towers, and then the sky was clear of the dead but the dark, smoggy clouds remained. He shot up into the air and flew away on his own wings instead of his Dragon's, hearing his fellow Dragoons shout at him to stop and wait.
But he wanted to see it happen.
He didn't even get to the smog ceiling before he heard the earth rip apart and groan and as he hovered on wings of light, he watched as the largest tree he'd ever seen in his life grew out of the horizon. It was so massive, the top of it reached the clouds. And it grew so fast, it probably only took about five minutes for it to stop moving so much. Seven branches planted themselves in the ground around the main trunk- from what Demyx could see, it looked like the Tree was made out of other tree trunks all woven together. The clouds parted and the Moon fell through and crashed into the Tree, its weight and girth held up by the main trunk.
The trunk of The Divine Tree was wide enough that the Moon settled on it. Demyx dropped a few meters in shock that he was watching the birth of a new race- the one that would destroy all the others.
"The Moon has fallen!" he screamed down to them, and took off toward the Moon.
Within a minute he saw Xion flying next to him, and then Paine on his other side. With the souls gone and hiding from the coming destruction, they were all safe to fly; and fly they would. The closer they got, the more they saw birds flying away from it, but…
No. Those "birds" were Virage, like the one that they'd fought in the valley of corrupted gravity. Tall and white, but these could fly and they were flying right toward them. He heard Xion shout, "Those are Virage, right?" just as Axel streaked by with Xaldin at his side. Xigbar caught up with him, Paine, and Xion and flew underneath Demyx for a while.
Axel and Xaldin were carving out a path for the rest of them to fly through, batting away Virage with fireballs and blasts of wind. Demyx looked behind him to see Zexion with a barrier of green light surrounding himself and Lexaeus and two Virage attacking them, which Lexaeus swung at if they got close enough. He could see that Zexion was tiring out by the way the barrier was spinning slower around them and his wings were struggling to beat.
And then, it all stopped. The barrier fell, and the Virage charged the rest of the way, and Zexion's armor glowed bright green and disappeared and he started to fall.
Demyx turned back and dove as he tapped into the Blue-Sea Dragon and felt the armor slide into place around him and the Dragon's wings took place where his winglie wings had been before and he brought them in tight to his body as he raced to catch Zexion before he met the ground. He glanced up and saw that Lexaeus was still battling the two Virage, but Xigbar had joined in the fight, along with Paine.
Xion was following him in the dive.
He stretched out his hand and caught Zexion, who had been reaching out for him (thankfully, still conscious). He pulled Zexion in close to his chest and, seeing that the ground was too close to avoid it and he was going too fast to stop, turned so that Zexion was tucked safe against his chest and braced for his back to slam into the ground.
Zexion reached around them, and his green light from the Spirit shimmered and sputtered, but Demyx could feel them slowing down marginally and when they hit the ground, they landed in a patch of sand and it puffed up around them as Zexion rested his head against Demyx's chest and groaned.
Demyx couldn't move, nor could he even feel the heat of the sand he knew was against his back and had probably been baking in the sun all day.
He saw Xion touch down a little ways from them, and Zexion was wavering, but he was sitting up and waving off Xion and telling her to help Demyx first. He watched her kneel next to him and he knew that he was babbling about not being able to feel anything, but he couldn't seem to stop.
There was a Virage diving after them and Xion was distracted because of him and Zexion was out of power. He felt the Blue-Sea Dragon nudge his mind and he twitched his fingers and closed his eyes as the Dragon ripped its way out of the Spirit gem. Xion fell back to the side and Zexion looked up and they both watched as the blue and yellow body of Demyx's dragon blasted its way through the air and ripped the Virage coming after them into pieces before turning its focus on to other Virage around them.
"Xion! Heal!" Zexion gasped out, and she turned back to fixing Demyx and letting her Spirit glow out the magic to fix Demyx's body.
Finally, he sat up and groaned and watched his Dragon bite through Virage after Virage. Xion fixed Zexion up enough that he could move the wind around them. Demyx stretched his wings out and pushed off enough to fly in a small circle, and then reached down to Zexion. The three of them looked at each other, and then he sighed and grabbed Demyx's hand and jumped up enough for Demyx to get a good hold and they took off back into the sky.
The sky was saturated with Virage, and he noticed that Axel's and Paine's dragons had joined the fight and as he passed off Zexion to Xaldin, he also noticed that the Virage were coming out of the Moon. Its landing had broken the seven branches off of the main trunk. The Dragoons gathered together as they flew closer, and Demyx called out to Paine, "We can probably get in the Moon the same way the Virage are getting out!" and he pointed to the pods (which they used to think were craters in the Moon, back before they knew that the Moon was actually the flesh of the God of Destruction). Paine nodded and the two of them lead the way through the Virage, followed by Xigbar and Xion, and then Xaldin and Zexion. Axel and Lexaeus brought up the rear, with the three Dragons flying around and attacking independently.
Demyx pushed forward and pulled his sitar to his hand and bashed a Virage that was coming out of a pod, and as it fell, dazed, off the face of the Moon, he darted inside and pushed ice against the sides of the pod's opening and froze it open. Paine flew past him and touched down on a rock overhanging an abyss. Xaldin and Zexion came through next, and directly behind them was Xion, who went right for Zexion to continue healing him so his exhaustion would go away enough for his armor and wings to be called again. Xigbar stayed outside the pod until Axel and Lexaeus flew in and then he flew in and waited next to Xaldin while Paine, Axel, and Demyx dismissed their dragons and watched the Virage destroy the desert around them.
"I always thought that Virage were a creation of winglies," Demyx said to Paine. "I didn't know that they were like mini Destruction Gods. How did we ever keep control of them?"
Paine put her hand on his shoulder and shrugged. "I assume Melbu Frahma had a lot to do with it. But he's not an issue anymore; we've got Dart to worry about, and the end of the world to stop."
Demyx nodded and flew down to the rocks where the other Dragoons were hanging around Zexion and helped Xion heal him as best he could. As soon as he was able to call his armor back, they would start looking for a way deeper into the Moon.
"It's all going as Dart said," Xigbar said, leaned up against an empty Virage-shaped husk. "The Moon fell, Soa's plan to destroy the world is working, and the God of Destruction is probably merging with the Moon as we wait."
"The world's not over yet," Zexion said, and stood up with help from Xaldin, and then gently pushed Xaldin's hand away. He shakily held himself up and let the Jade Dragon armor wrap around his body. As he stretched his wings out he continued, "As long as we are still alive, the world can still be saved."
"Thanks for the pep talk, Your Majesty, but someone has to look at this realistically- we don't even know where to look for Roxas and Dart, and considering how fast the Tree grew, I'll bet anything that it won't take long for the Moon to become the Virage Embryo," Xigbar said.
"The core," Paine said. The other Dragoons all turned to her and she continued, "The God of Destruction won't be born unless Roxas and the core of the Moon are joined." She looked at Axel and said, "Even if we don't get to Roxas, as long as we destroy the core of the Moon the world is saved."
"At what cost?" Xaldin asked.
"Our own lives, if necessary," Axel growled. "We have the lives of everything that has ever been created and born from the Divine Tree on the line and we have to save them; at the cost of our own lives if that's what it takes."
"What happened to living happily ever after with Roxas?" Xion whispered.
The Dragoons looked back at Axel and waited and watched his demeanor falter as he said, "Fate is not in the hands of Soa; it's with us now. The fate of the world is in our hands, and Roxas's fate as well. Even if we fail, at least we'll have put up a fight."
Then the ground beneath their feet began to quiver and quake. They all took to the air, and hovered against the rocks while more Virage flew past them to the pod. They heard something begin to pulse, and it reverberated through the cavern and the Virage screeched as they passed.
"What is that?" Xaldin asked.
"I think… That the God of Destruction is being born," Paine responded. And the Dragoons all looked around and saw that there were veins of blue swirling through the rocks of the Moon and it was the same shade of blue that the Virage Embryo had used to protect Roxas all those times, and to take the Moon Taint from Axel. They dropped off of the rocks they had been hovering above and flew down and deeper into the Moon.
"If the God of Destruction is like any other creature spawned from the Tree, we could follow these veins to the core," Zexion called out to the rest of the group. He pushed forward to the front with Demyx and took the lead through the maze of rock outcrops and following one vein of Light as it turned into a cavern.
It was dark and the blue Lights along the sides and the faint glowing of Xion's and Axel's wings were their only sources of light. Axel stayed in the middle of the group, next to Lexaeus and Xaldin, while Xion picked up her pace and flew in-between Zexion and Demyx. Xigbar and Paine stayed back, checking over their shoulders every so often to make sure no Virage were following them.
"What's with the pulsing sounds?" Xaldin asked Paine.
"I assume it's the heartbeat of the Embryo," she responded. "It's just been an empty corpse all this time, ever since the winglies took the soul from it and sealed it in the sky."
Xaldin nodded, and the cavern ended and they flew out over pine trees and it was much brighter- the veins seemed to collect here and passed over and around the trees along the rocks. The tops of the trees were blanketed in snow and the Dragoons found a clearing near the edge of the cavern and looked out at the woods.
Xion stepped closer to the treeline and looked left and right down the trees. "Did we end up back on the ground?"
"No, the veins are everywhere and you can still hear the heartbeat, can't you?" Demyx said.
"We're still on the Moon," Lexaeus grumbled.
"We should get back in the air and find a way out of here," Axel said. He began to push off but Xaldin stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. He looked back at Xaldin and then followed his gaze back to Xion.
"Xion?" Xaldin asked, "Is everything alright?"
"I…" she glanced back to the other seven Dragoons and then bolted into the trees.
She could hear the others calling for her, but she kept running, using her wings to push her along, but she didn't get any air. The closer she got to the center of the forest (and she could feel that she was getting close), the more she recognized the positions of the trees and the more familiar she became with the various pine trees.
Those pines had provided cover for her when she was little, and now were also providing cover while she determined what was going on. It was like Aglis all over again- the battle to find courage, then; what was the battle against this time? Doubt?
She stopped just outside a clearing and saw a small rose plant in the middle of it. And she bit her lip as it was reaffirmed in her mind that this was the forest that she had grown up in, because she remembered planting that bush with her mother before…
Well, before her mother walked out and left her with her dead-beat father.
She remembered the moment she knew for sure that her mother didn't care for her at all- it was when that strange man had showed up, knocked on the door to their shack, and was startled that her mother hadn't mentioned the fact that she had a kid. Xion had asked him what he'd meant by that and how he knew her mother when the woman had came out from around the back of their "house" and greeted him as a friend. He had pointed at Xion and asked if they were taking "the kid" too, but her mother had said no.
Her mother complained about how she was always hungry and how her husband hardly worked and when he did, he spent his money on alcohol, and how marrying "that man" ruined her life.
And Xion had mentioned that if her and father hadn't met, then she wouldn't have been born, and her mother had said, "And that's part of the reason my life is ruined!" and left with the strange man. Xion stayed with her father until the day he died, a few years later, after which she traveled to Denningrad to join the ranks of the Sacred Sisters.
She looked back at the rose bush and noticed that it was growing fast, and larger than a rose bush should have grown. She took one step back and the bush developed one deep red bloom that then opened and faced her.
Faced. There was a face in the rose, and the face was that of her mother, and it spoke. She crept closer to the rose to hear what it was saying, and lost the cover of the trees.
"I had a reason," it kept saying. Over and over, she heard the voice of her mother saying that it had a reason; and she knew that it was referring to leaving her with her father, and Xion didn't want to hear the reasons. She pushed off and flew the rest of the way to the bush, calling her sword to her hand and preparing to lob the head off of that rose.
She swung clean through the stem and watched the bush shrivel up and fall to the ground, dead and brown. The head of the rose, however, was still bright red and repeating those four words over and over again. And finally, after groaning and kicking the petals of the rose, Xion screamed, "So what was it, then?"
It faltered in its chant and then said, "I had no other choice."
She sliced off a third of the head with a screech, "You had no other choice than abandoning me with him?"
"You need to understand."
"You need to come up with a better excuse!"
"What I did was unforgivable as your mother, and you have every right to be angry, but I had no other choice."
Faintly, she heard someone call her name and she was almost positive that it was her friends but she started cutting at the rose head until its petals were in shreds. She felt tears stream down her face as she screamed and reaffirmed her hatred for her mother over and over again.
She felt arms take her into an embrace and she dropped her sword and her legs gave out. She looked around her and saw the pieces of petals all around the ground and heard Xaldin whispering into her ear that she's alright, that whatever she was fighting was gone; but she could still hear her mother's voice repeating "I had a reason" and she hiccupped and sniffed back her tears.
"You need to understand."
"I don't need to understand anything!"
"Xion, calm down," Xaldin said, and she shut her eyes and turned in his embrace and felt his Dragoon armor fall away just after her armor left her. She tucked her face against his chest plate and listened to her mother tell her that she had a reason, that she had no choice, that Xion had to understand.
"I cannot forgive you!" she screamed. She looked back at the rose petals on the ground and she wiped her arm across her eyes. Xaldin kept a hand clasped against hers and she said, "I became a sacred sister to build a world where everyone can live happily, and you have always been in the back of my mind, reminding me that I was always unwanted and not worthy of your love. You still fill me with hatred whenever I think of you and I can't ever forgive you for what you did!"
The voice then whispered, "I can't be normal as long as you hate me."
She closed her eyes tight and squeezed Xaldin's hand and sighed. "No. You are not forgiven, but neither are you a part of me anymore. Leave me alone, now!"
She waited and listened for a minute before falling to her knees in the center of the petal storm. It was gone.
The voice was gone.
She felt so… numb. Xaldin's arms went back around her as he knelt beside her and she leaned against him and saw the rest of the Dragoons gathered around her. Demyx came up and crouched in front of her and she saw the blue glow of his Spirit while he tried to heal her, but she also heard the soft voice of the White-Silver Dragon in her mind telling her that she did the right thing and she smiled and wiped at her eyes again.
"What was that?" Demyx asked.
"Psychotic episode brought on by the Virage Embryo?" Xigbar suggested.
"My mother," she whispered. "One of those 'you can't run from your past forever' things. She wanted to be forgiven for walking out on my father and me. She was the rose." Xion motioned to the dead bush to the side and the petals all along the ground. "She used to love roses," she muttered.
The group was silent for a while before Axel broke it. "I understand you just had an exhausting mental battle, but the heartbeat of the Embryo is still going and we need to stop the merge between the Moon and Roxas."
Xion nodded and wiped at her face. "Then let's go." She stood up and held out a hand to Xaldin, who smirked but stood up by himself. Demyx also stood, and he put his hands on her shoulders and stopped her before she started walking and asked if she was really alright. She smiled and said, "Demyx, I've never felt better. Convenient that it should happen as the world is about to be destroyed, hmm?" and stepped out of his hands.
The rest of the Dragoons were still in their armor, and she turned to Xaldin and, still smiling, said, "You can't fly until you let go of the things that ground you," and summoned her wings and armor and took off.
Zexion and Paine were right behind her, closely followed by Axel and then Lexaeus. Demyx and Xigbar watched Xaldin watch Xion fly away, and when Demyx pushed off and followed after the others, Xigbar queried, "You really like her, don't you?"
Xaldin shook his head and let his armor take over his body and he floated into the air a bit before rushing after them.
And Xigbar laughed. "Not just 'like' then, huh? Poor man's in love." He dashed into the air and after the group, and followed as Xion and Zexion followed a vein of Light across the ceiling of the cavern and into another tunnel. Xigbar wondered where this tunnel would lead them and if they all would become victims of the same psychosis that infected Xion just a while ago.
The tunnel ended and lead them into a dimly lit cavern, wet and slick and dripping water everywhere. There were a few streams where the water had started to collect itself and flow, and the walls seemed to sparkle on their own as they flew by. The whole place bothered Xigbar greatly because it was incredibly familiar to him and he knew exactly why.
Claire had once interrupted his meditation in this cave.
Was the Moon playing off of the memories they had of dead people? First Xion with her mother and now Claire…
"Anyone recognize this place?" Demyx called out.
Xigbar kept it to himself as they flew over it. They passed little creatures walking around on the ground- dwarfish humans with disproportionately large feet and small arms, similarly dressed in bright yellows and pinks and greens- and Paine pointed them out as "Minitos- the 99th species, mostly killed before the winglies finished enslaving the humans" and that was when he saw her. And he knew it was her because only his sister could hold herself straight and tall and still look deceivingly sweet. Everyone else was commenting on the Minitos jumping around from rock to rock and over the streams.
So when he dropped back even further and then landed beside a group of three Minitos, and watched Claire jog down a path to his left that would take him away from the Dragoons, he understood why Xion had simply bolted when she recognized the forest they'd been in before. He sped after Claire without thinking about whether or not he should tell the others about the girl he was chasing. Hell, he wasn't even sure if the others would be able to see her anyway, or if they'd take his Spirit away so that he wasn't a threat to himself like Xion had been.
None of them had seen the rose that Xion had apparently ripped to shreds.
Deeper they went into the cave and the Minitos weren't even this deep in, and finally Claire stopped and was facing away and stepped into a stream of water. Xigbar's wings fluttered as he stopped and brushed his feet against the ground a few paces from her. "Claire?"
She turned around and snarled, "Why do you have to follow me everywhere, Xigbar?"
He planted his feet on the ground and sighed to let his armor dissipate. She strode up to him and he turned his face into the punch and staggered back a step. "I worry," he muttered.
"Discipline, discipline, discipline! Did it never occur to you- or to Dad!- that I didn't want it? For what use could I have the Art if not to destroy things or hurt people?"
"Rogue Art wasn't meant to hurt people," he said softly.
"Well look what it did! I killed people with those things I learned, Xigbar!" She kicked at him and he stepped back to avoid it, remembering that her kicks were extremely painful when they were kids. "It's not fair! Why couldn't I have just had normal friends who didn't want to spar all the time, or make flower bracelets, or have a boyfriend?"
She launched herself forward, fist flying at his face. He could have easily pushed it aside and pummeled her down, but he couldn't bring himself to hit her, even though he knew she wasn't really his sister. Instead, he leaned back, her fist flying harmlessly by where his face had been. He stepped forward quickly and lashed out, shoving her backwards. She stumbled several steps back, looking up at him in shocked fury. "I hate you! You never let me have a normal life!" She charged back at him, leaping up in a flying kick, and he nimbly slid to her left, coming up behind her. He again reached out to push her away, but she was already moving, having anticipated his action. She stepped to his right, and swung around, slamming him in the side of the head hard enough to see stars. He stumbled back, kicking out blindly at her, catching her in the stomach.
"Please stop, Claire, I don't want to hurt you."
She laughed scornfully at him. "Hurt me? Maybe before you could have, but since we last met, I've grown in more ways then you could possibly imagine. I've made several friends, all of whom make me stronger then you could ever be."
Xigbar frowned in sudden confusion. His sister's voice had sounded much different suddenly, as though there were two people talking over each other, saying the same thing at the exact same moment. He looked over at her, blinking to clear his head. Standing before him was his sister, but there was some sort of odd creature on her back, like a giant bug wrapping itself around her, its legs coming over her chest. He stared at it in horror, trying to figure out what it was. It cant be, he thought. Those where just stories that Gramps used to tell us to scare us into being good when we were kids. His mind raced frantically to try and figure out what it was he was seeing attached to his sister, but the only thing he could possibly imagine it to be was to horrific to even contemplate. It appeared that his sister had taken in the War God, using its strength for her own.
"Gods Claire, please tell me that isn't what I think it is. Tell me you weren't dumb enough to take in the War God." She stared back at him impassively, smirking cruelly.
"Oh brother, you say that as though it is such a bad thing but it's not. The War God has given me such power, such strength, you can't even imagine. I have enough power to destroy even you now. Watch, I'll show you." With that, she flew at him, infinitely faster then she had been before. He dodged and weaved, desperately trying to avoid her. He frantically pushed her blows aside every time he could, but there was no way he could possibly stop her without hurting her, something that he still couldn't bear to do. "Isn't this amazing brother?" She cried scornfully at him. "I'm so much more powerful now! All thanks to my new friend. And you of course." She snaked a jab in past his block, pounding his ribs mercilessly. "Just think, you were right all those times. I wasn't strong enough, or a good enough student of yours. You pushed me to get stronger and stronger, become a better fighter and all that. After all, it's all because you pushed me so hard that I ran away. If you hadn't been so hard on me, I never would have left, and then I never would have gained the friendship of the War God."
Xigbar's breath caught in his chest. She was right, he had been hard on her all those years, and it was his fault that she had left. He looked up at her as he managed to get a few steps away from her. "You're right Claire. It was my fault all that time ago. I'm sorry that I pushed you so hard, and you had every reason for leaving."
Claire's steps faltered and he rushed in and flipped over her shoulders. He pressed his hands against the War God on her back and tapped into his Spirit enough to give it an electric shock and as it was writhing he ripped it off of her back and threw in into the stream. He then grabbed Claire and dove out of the water, then shocked the parasite again and again. It screamed and he kept blasting it with his Dragon's power until it stopped moving and then he looked down at his sister who stood against his side.
Her blows had felt real. She was solid against his side. She was just as he remembered her, back before she left. Their father had made Xigbar promise to look after her and to continue the school, and he had put the school above his sister. He heard Axel calling for him, along with the other Dragoons, and he pressed one last kiss to the top of her head.
"I'm sorry. For everything. And I'm happy for you, that you found someone to have a family with- I know that it would mean the world to you to know that your son grew up to be a good man," he said. She smiled and sat down at his feet and took off her shoes and put them in the stream.
"Sit with me a while?"
He nodded. She wasn't real, and she wasn't his Claire, but he'd take what he could get until the group found him.
"It must be a thing with the Virage Embryo," Zexion hypothesized. "It's a god, so it makes sense that it can see into our pasts and find memories that are emotionally scaring and turn those against us. It is all about destruction, and destroying our morale is probably its biggest concern apart from merging its flesh and soul."
They were flying again, around the sparkling, wet cave, and trying to find an exit that didn't involve backtracking to the wintry forest. Zexion tossed his hair back and out of his face- it had been a while since he'd bothered to maintain his appearance and now his hair was getting long even for his dragon's headband to keep back properly.
Paine nodded beside him. "Maybe it has something to do with the idea that with the destruction of the world, our futures and our pasts are destroyed as well," she proposed. Both of them touched down near a group of Minitos and watched them walk around. There were less than there had been before, and she wondered where they were going and how they were leaving the cave.
Back to where Violet Dragon was found, she heard from her Dragon, and she looked over to Zexion to see if he had gotten the message. He was already looking at her, and he stopped and turned around. She followed Zexion back to where they found Xigbar, and a little ways further away the rest of the group gathered nearby a mirror on the wall of the cave.
"I saw a couple of Minitos walk through it," Lexaeus said.
"Through it?" Paine asked.
"Yep," Xion added, "I saw it, too."
Paine sighed, and walked up to the mirror. She placed her hand on it, and as it gave way and her hand slipped through the glass, looked back to the other Dragoons. "If it works, I'll come back," she said as she stepped into the mirror.
They all waited with bated breath for Paine to come back, and didn't have to wait long. Within a minute she was back in the Minito cave and waving them all forward.
"It's some kind of town," she said. "It looks Serdian."
Axel and Demyx and Xion went through the mirror first, then Lexaeus and Xigbar. Zexion and Xaldin looked at each other with worried glances and Paine tired to hurry them along but they would budge.
"Serdian, right? Paine, if it's Serdian, then more than likely, it's one of us that's going to confront the past next," Zexion said.
"And what in your past really scares you so badly you don't want to even move forward?" Paine asked as she cocked her hip. She was tired of her Dragoons being afraid of things they couldn't change and only had to accept; but Zexion had a point that destroying their morale might be the Embryo's plan and if he was right, then maybe he had the right idea of wanting to find a way to the core without going through the mirror.
"I'm not scared," Zexion said. He looked at Xaldin, steady and strong at his side, and whispered, "I'm terrified."
"And we'll be with you the entire way," Paine said and held out her hand. "We're in this together, and whatever will we do without our defense specialist?" They shared a quick smile and he took her hand and nodded to Xaldin.
They walked through the mirror and landed in an inn. A peak out the window showed Indels Castle and Zexion's stomach dropped. The windows of the castle were draped in black fabric, and the innkeeper was dressed in black, as were the rest of the patrons save the Dragoons. They had huddled in a corner table and waved the three of them over, and Paine went immediately but Xaldin hesitated and Zexion kept looking out at the castle.
This was Bale.
Bale, on that morning twenty years ago when Serdio found out that their King, Carlo, had been assassinated overnight.
Zexion brushed Xaldin's hand off his shoulder and ran out of the inn. His uncle (or at least, a shadow of his uncle) would most likely still be there. He didn't break Serdio in half until a week after the assassination, when the regents and courtiers determined that the crown would go to the six-year-old Prince instead of the King's brother.
And now, finally, Zexion would get answers. Real answers.
Disclaimer: We totally would own it if we weren't poor college students. Right.
Cy: Dude. That took for-fucking-ever. Kudos to Veroxen for writing the scene with Feyrbrand and to my lovely fiancé for helping me with the fight scene between Claire and Xigbar. I'm sorry for the huge amount of time between chapters and I wish I had a good excuses but I really don't other than lack of motivation.