(A/N): This chapter took a little longer than I'd anticipated - sorry 'bout that. But, um - baaaattle scenes. I couldn't help it, I love writing these suckers. Also, I've put up a poll regarding Waiting on my profile page for anybody who'd like to check that out. And as I made a massive double batch of chocolate chip cookies earlier, have a virtual cookie as an apology for the lateness of this chapter. (Yeah, it's late. I'm rambling. It's all good.)
Disclaimer: I have yet to cheat, lie, or steal my way into the possession of the rights for these characters. I am suitably disheartened.
The scream Sora had been building toward died in his throat as the darkness swallowed him. Axel's grip on his arm fell away, and he immediately tried to spin back toward the portal they'd come through, but the blackness surrounding him was complete. Absolute. Sora turned in another direction, already disoriented, eyes beginning to ache with the strain of trying to give the darkness some sort of definition, to find some point of reference with which to discern his position in all that blackness.
There was nothing. No light, no horizon, no up, no down – no sense of space or direction at all. Breaths growing shallower, on the edge of hyperventilating, Sora took a step forward, extending his hands out in front of him. It was impossible to tell if he'd actually managed to change his position, and a sharp sense of vertigo rose up within him as he took another step, and another, mouth dry and heart pounding.
An unseen hand manacled his wrist, and this time Sora did scream, a raw, primal sound that ripped its way up his throat and exploded into the sky as he stepped out of the darkness and into the middle of a war.
Sensation slammed back into him all at once, and he staggered under the onslaught of scent, sight, and sound. There was smoke everywhere, and inhuman screams rent the air, clawing their way down the inside of Sora's skull. Axel had pulled him out of the darkness at the edge of a skyscraper's roof, so close Sora didn't even have to lean over to stare down the face of the building toward the ground far below – and the battle being waged over every inch of it. Hundreds of sub-human things were spread across the field of combat, black on white, crashing against one another with steel and teeth and claws, shrieks of pain and triumph mingled with the sounds of tearing flesh and the scrape of bone against steel; as quickly as they were cut down more rose from nothing, their bodies twisting and writhing in ways that shouldn't be possible. Sora wrenched backwards and out of Axel's grasp with a thin cry, head reeling – he dropped to his knees behind the redhead, his fingernails scraping against concrete as he braced his hands against the roof and waited for his empty stomach to finish trying to turn itself inside out.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?"
A black-coated figure dropped out of a dark portal to land heavily beside them, booted feet kicking up clouds of dust and detritus. "Relax," Axel said as Roxas straightened and threw back his dark hood, "I didn't break him."
"Take him back," Roxas snarled. "Now."
"Why would I want to do that?" Axel asked.
"You know why!"
"Ah, I think we're too late – take a look."
Sora spit out another mouthful of bile, trying to blink the tears out of his eyes as his entire frame shuddered with the force of the voices ripping through him. Trembling, tears sliding down his cheeks, he turned and crawled back to the edge of the roof, fingers curling around the lip as he stared out over the battlefield. Thousands of glowing yellow eyes stared back at him from a sea of darkness, the shadows standing motionless, heedless of their white counterparts, who jumped upon their sudden advantage and began slaughtering them left and right.
"They'll tear the Queen's seal apart to get at him if we take him back now," Axel said.
Sora gritted his teeth and squeezed his eyes shut, hands gripping the building so tightly the knuckles turned white. He could hear them in his head, their voices flowing and ebbing like the tide, just this side of being truly audible, and though he couldn't understand their words he could comprehend the shape of their thoughts – they'd been locked away for so long, centuries since they had last seen light, and here was Light, standing before them, and they were so hungry…
Time seemed to stretch and thin – Sora was painfully aware of his heart beating in his chest, the rush of blood in his ears and air in his lungs, and for a moment between heartbeats time lay down and was still. He hung suspended between seconds for what felt like forever, staring helplessly out over the uplifted faces of the shadow army with the taste of bile still burning in his throat and the salty tracks of his tears drying on his cheeks.
When at last his next heartbeat thundered through his body, a shudder passed through the nearest shadows, racing outward like ripples in a pond, and Sora's mind echoed with their wordless howls as all hell broke loose.
They surged forward as one, oblivious of the enemies that stood between them and their goal, tearing mindlessly at any obstacle they came across, scrambling over the dissolving bodies and destroyed buildings, their eyes never leaving the brown-haired boy suspended far above them. "Here they come," Axel observed, crossing his arms over his chest.
"What the hell do you think you're playing at, Axel?" Roxas asked grimly as the first wave of shadows began their frenzied ascent up the side of the building. Axel grinned, eyes shining with an eerie intensity in the half-light, before he pursed his lips and blew a short, sharp whistle. Below them, the front line of advancing shadows stumbled, then disappeared, melting away with high-pitched shrieks as pale, razor-sharp appendages emerged from the side of the wall and sliced cleanly through them. Their comrades threw themselves forward, claws scrabbling against concrete, but found nothing there, screaming in stupefied surprise when a fresh onslaught fell on them from a different direction. Sora caught fleeting glimpses of pale shapes undulating through the wall as if it were water, but they were vague, fragmented sightings that confused more than elucidated, and he shut his eyes again, arms quaking with the sustained effort of clinging to the edge of the roof.
Gloved fingers brushed against the skin beneath the collar of his shirt, and he started forward, eyes popping open as he felt his center of balance shift too far to correct, one hand slipping from its perch and flailing helplessly at empty air. A hand fisted itself around his shirt and jerked him back, remaining knotted in the fabric as Roxas spoke above him. "Move away from the ledge." He slipped his free hand beneath the brown-haired boy's arm, directing his next words at Axel. "That won't hold them forever."
As Sora allowed the blond to pull him to his feet, he saw that Roxas was right – although the shadows' unseen adversaries continued to cut them down with impunity, countless more pressed forward, crawling through the dissolving bodies of their allies in places, gaining ground an inch at a time by virtue of their overwhelming numbers and relentless tenacity. Dark claws lunged through the air, sinking into one of the pale limbs, and the creature was dragged, shrieking, from the wall; Sora had a brief glimpse of a vaguely human, stoop-shouldered shape before the shadows swarmed over it, ripping at it with teeth and claws. Its dying screams echoed in Sora's ears as he turned away.
"Maybe we should ask the Keybearer to save us," Axel mused, toes poking out over the edge of the roof as he watched the shadows' advance. He glanced up when Roxas didn't answer, arching an eyebrow at the blond's expression. "What? Isn't that what he's here for?" He cut his gaze over to Sora, sagging in the other boy's grip, and a mocking grin creased his lips as he spread his arms wide. "Come on kid, you're the big hero – what're you waiting for?" Sora could only stare back, wide-eyed and still trembling slightly from shock. Axel snorted and leaned back out over the ledge.
"I should turn you into a Dusk myself," Roxas said, voice low and hard.
"Relax, Rox," Axel sighed, dragging a hand through his hair. "I planned on him being pretty much useless."
Roxas's eyes narrowed. "You planned."
"Yes, Roxas, I do that on occasion," Axel rejoined dryly, crossing his arms over his chest again as he paced along the edge of the roof. "Believe it or not, I'm trying to keep the kid alive. And keep the castle secure. You know they'd keep trying to force their way through the seal with him inside. This way – look at them." He swept an arm toward the fight still raging on the face of the building. "They're so focused on him they can't even think straight. They're completely out of her control." His eyes locked with Roxas's. "We just have to keep him alive until she shows up."
"She won't," Roxas said.
"She has to," Axel shot back. "She wants him, too – and he won't be much good to her if her pets rip his heart out, will he?"
There was a tense moment of silence between them as they each attempted to stare the other down. Finally, Roxas's fingers tightened around Sora's arm. "Xemnas can't have approved this."
Axel shrugged, smile sharp and completely unapologetic. The blond's breath hissed out between his clenched teeth before he turned sharply on his heel, jerking Sora along behind him. "Fine," he muttered darkly.
He pulled Sora to the center of the roof, swinging him around so that they were facing each other, gripping the brown-haired boy's arms with bruising force. "Sora." Sora blinked, eyes glassy as he tried to filter through the haze of voices in his head and concentrate on Roxas's words. "I'm sorry, but we can't take you back. Stay here and don't move, all right?" Not waiting for an answer, he released Sora and stepped back as several white figures materialized before him, hands resting on the hilts of their swords. Roxas pointed at Sora. "Protect the Keybearer. Nothing gets past you, do you understand me?" The creatures bowed their masked heads in unison before turning and rapidly aligning themselves in a circle around the brown-haired boy, facing outwards. Sora shrank away from them, reaching for the keychain in his pocket. Roxas spared him one last look. "They'll keep you safe," he said, drawing his hood back up around his face as he turned back toward Axel.
A mirthless grin stretched the redhead's lips as his fingers flexed, and darkness and flame raced down his arms, coalescing into two wickedly pointed wheels that spun just beyond the redhead's reach until he grabbed them out of the air. "Here we go," he muttered as the first clawed limb grasped the edge of the roof. The shadow's head quickly followed, glowing eyes fixed on Sora, but before it could pull itself up any further the entire perimeter of the roof burst into flame. It jerked backward with a startled howl, losing its grip and disappearing from sight as it hurtled toward the ground far below.
More dark shapes appeared beyond the wall of fire, and Sora could only watch as they prowled along the flames, searching for a way in. Axel adopted a loose fighting stance, feet spread wide as his weapons swung from his fingers, occasionally sending a wheel caroming through the flames to tear through a shadow's body. Sora held the keychain wrapped in both hands, thrust in front of him in a defensive posture as he spun around and around, stumbling over his own feet as he tried to keep all of the dark silhouettes in sight at once. His heart was pounding a painful tattoo against his ribs, pushing a fresh wave of voices the keychain did nothing to dampen through him with each beat; his knees were threatening to buckle, but he knew if he went down he'd never manage to get back on his feet again.
Both Sora and Axel spun toward the source of the cry to find Roxas running toward the wall of fire, eyes fixed on the shadows being forced through the blaze by the ranks behind them, falling, smoking, smothering the flames even as they faded away. A high-pitched ringing filled the air, and two blades appeared with twin bursts of light and darkness in Roxas's hands. Sora only had time to register that one blade was white and the other was black before Roxas was on top of the advancing shadows, stabbing and slashing with such speed and precision it made Sora's head spin.
Axel cursed under his breath as another group of shadows pushed through the fire, his fingers tightening around his weapons before the metal burst into flame in his hands. Sora stumbled back a step, a startled shout escaping his throat, but the redhead didn't seem to feel the heat as the flames licked at his gloves – he threw both weapons at the advancing shadows, their razor-tipped edges slicing easily through dark flesh and lopping off limbs and heads, the flames burning what they didn't cut. After their initial pass, the wheels swung back on themselves, tearing through the black throng a second time before being snatched out of the air by Axel, the redhead's boots crunching over the loose gravel of the roof as he darted forward, throwing himself into their midst.
The next few minutes were a blur to Sora, nothing more than a series of disjointed images and sounds all mixed up with the voices screaming in his head and the stark, unrelenting fear tearing through him with every breath.
Roxas spun between the shadows, blades flashing, shearing through flesh and bone. One of the creatures leapt at his head; he ducked under it, slicing it in half length-wise with the white blade before he planted a hand on the ground and swept his leg out in a roundhouse kick, knocking his assailants backwards –
Axel's voice was little more than a frustrated growl as he danced away from a shadow's assault, slashing his weapon at it with one hand as he threw a spout of flame with the other. "Get back!" As the creatures pressed too close for him to swing his arms freely, he released the weapons, and they began to spin around his body at an increasingly rapid pace, until a roaring column of fire engulfed him, the intense heat forcing the shadows back –
Roxas stabbed both blades into a shadow's body, back muscles contorting beneath his black coat as he ripped the weapons out through the creature's sides, kicking its dissolving body away from him as he turned away, coming face-to-face with another shadow, already inside his guard –
And a burning wheel tore through the creature's body, Roxas not even having a chance to voice any thanks before moving to cut down the next one –
A shadow leapt at Axel's unguarded side – the redhead caught it by the throat, fingers digging into the thing's neck, black on black, before the small body exploded into flame, the creature writhing and shrieking in Axel's grip for a moment before he flung it away –
Sora wanted to scream, to clap his hands over his ears and shut his eyes until it all went away and he woke up in his own bed again, bathed in a cold sweat and trembling uncontrollably but safe… But this was happening, this was real, and if he started screaming he didn't think he'd ever be able to stop.
Though Roxas and Axel fought viciously, a few shadows managed to slip past them, and the white creatures ringed around Sora brought their swords to bear in one smooth movement, masked faces giving no hint of their thoughts. They stood motionless, not even seeming to breathe, until the black bodies came into range – then they surged forward and drew in one smooth movement, cutting the creatures in half and returning to their original positions in the blink of an eye. Sora shied first one way and then the other between them, pulse throbbing through his veins so hard he was afraid his heart might explode. He was holding the keychain so tightly his hands had locked into position around it, the muscles so rigid they hurt, but he couldn't loosen his grip.
The shadows continued to surge forward, throwing themselves on Axel and Roxas's weapons, more and more slipping past them with every second, and Sora's guardians began to struggle under the increasing strain. Roxas smashed the dull edge of his blade into a shadow's head, using its back as a stepping stone with which to launch himself into the air, over the heads of its allies, trying to get closer to Sora. "Axel!" he bellowed, slashing at every limb that came in range. "We can't hold them – we have to get him out!" Axel grunted an acknowledgement, turning and sending his weapons spiraling through the surrounding shadows, trying to open an avenue to the brown-haired boy, but as quickly as they were cut down more were shoved forward by the sheer number of shadows behind them, and the redhead's progress remained painfully slow. "Sora!" Roxas shouted, grimly attempting to cut a path toward the other boy. "We're coming!"
Sora couldn't find the voice to answer, but he nodded jerkily. In front of him, the shadows pulled down one of his pale protectors. Another stepped out of thin air to take its place, but almost immediately another to its left was dragged down and torn apart. The remaining guardians tightened the circle around Sora, until he barely had room to move; when Roxas saw what was happening he redoubled his efforts, cursing the mass of shadows that stood between them. "Axel, get him out of there now!"
The shadows swarmed forward, claws latching on to the legs of one of Sora's guardians before they scrambled up its body, ripping it to shreds with every step. The first shadow to reach the dying guardian's head paused, clawed limbs sunk deeply into the other creature's shoulders as it fixed its glowing eyes on Sora. Sora stumbled back a step, keychain held before him like a talisman, unable to tear his gaze away from the shadow's face, featureless except for those horrible yellow eyes.
Roxas swept both blades in a tight, controlled arc, darting forward into the small opening it afforded him, stabbing one shadow through the head as he knocked another away from him with a forearm. "Sora!"
The shadow launched itself forward, claws tearing one last chunk out of the decomposing guardian's body, and Sora's world narrowed to the sight of the black body hurtling toward him, backlit by the undulating clouds of smoke obscuring the sky behind it. He thrust his hands out in a futile effort to protect himself, and then the thing collided with him, clawed hands slashing at his skin as its momentum bowled the both of them over backward. They slammed into the surface of the roof – Sora's head struck the rough concrete hard enough to rebound, and for a few seconds the world receded into a gray haze.
Slowly, the world solidified around him once again. He had landed with his body twisted on the rubble-strewn roof, one cheek pressed against the unyielding surface and his right hand caught in something cold and metallic. There was already a knot forming where his head had smacked against the unyielding surface, and his arms were bleeding from half a dozen deep lacerations where the shadow's claws had scored him – but it was no longer attacking him. Where was it? The fingers of Sora's right hand clenched around the foreign object they were tangled in as a spike of adrenaline shot through his system, and he forced an eye open with a groan.
The shadow was splayed next to him on the roof, and he recoiled at the sight of the creature's glowing yellow eyes, less than a foot away from his own, but it didn't follow him. He paused, adrenaline still screaming through his body, and waited for it to throw itself at him again, but it only extended a hand toward his chest, claws jerking open and closed in irregular spasms.
Why wasn't it attacking him?
Lifting his head from its prone position almost caused him to pass out, but Sora grit his teeth and used his free hand to lever himself into a kneeling position. The object in his right hand shifted, nearly costing him his precarious new-found balance, and the heel of his left palm scraped against the roof as he used it to brace himself, muscles quivering. He rested in that position a moment, eyes closed as he waited for the sensation that he was going to be horribly sick to pass, but something tugged at his right arm again and he forced his eyes open with a convulsive swallow.
The shadow was pinned to the roof by a giant blade, the hilt of which was the object Sora's hand was tangled around. As he watched, the shadow twitched forward, claws still grasping at air, and Sora's arm followed its movement. Sora's lips skinned back in a breathless shout as he jerked backward, and after a moment of resistance, the head of the blade wrenched loose of the shadow's body. Almost immediately, the creature began to break apart and vanish. Sora scrambled backward, staring at the blade in his hand. It looked…like a giant key. "What…"
He collided with one of the white creatures surrounding him and recoiled instinctively, clambering to his feet and spreading his legs wide in an effort to keep from collapsing back to the ground. Blood dripped in red rivulets down his arms, splattering the ground around his feet, and a laceration above his left eye throbbed in time to his heartbeat. The shadows gibbered and shrieked outside his circle of protection, and Sora flinched away before he froze, eyes wide. He couldn't – he couldn't hear them anymore. Their screams echoed in his ears, but for the first time since emerging from the darkness the only thoughts in his head were his own. The key-shaped blade thrummed in his hands, a sub-audible rhythm that sent bone-deep reverberations surging through his body; Sora clasped both hands around the hilt, holding it uncertainly in front of him as he peered at its design more closely.
The cut of the teeth resembled a crown.
His heart leapt in his chest, seeming to synchronize its beat to the pulsations washing through his body. An odd, tingling warmth enveloped him, flowing from his torso and through his limbs into each extremity, until it felt as every finger and every toe was humming with barely-contained energy, each individual cell super-charged with some incredible unknown power. Light bent and refracted around the tip of his blade, brightening as a sudden wind sprang up from nowhere, tugging Sora's hair and clothing first one way, then another. The blossom of radiance grew and intensified until he had to squint his eyes against the glare of it – the ground beneath him took on an unearthly glow, strands of light rippling through the concrete like water. He was dimly aware of a dismayed shout sounding from somewhere close by before the light enveloped him completely, reducing his vision to a wash of white and filling his ears with the sound of rushing wind.
For a few endless moments he remained in a strange sort of stasis, his sphere of existence consisting of nothing more than the light and wind swirling around him. It was…soothing. He felt impossibly refreshed, better than he had at any point since being dragged through the mirror and into this bizarre situation.
For a second he thought he caught a flash of movement beyond the wall of light, and then one of Roxas's blades tore through it, spinning past Sora's face mere inches from his nose; both the wind and the light faltered as the brown-haired boy flinched backward with a shout. As the last of the luminescence faded and died away Sora looked up to find he was suddenly alone on the roof with Roxas and Axel – the shadows had vanished.
The other two were regarding him with equally cryptic expressions. Roxas's hands hung empty at his sides, and his eyes were flat and unreadable beneath the dark brim of his hood. Axel was clutching his right arm against his body, the wash of blood from a deep gash in his bicep almost invisible against his dark clothing. Neither of them said a word until the redhead stepped forward, lips curving upward in a strained grin. "Not bad, kid," he said, reaching out a blood-stained glove and gently pushing the tip of Sora's blade toward the ground. "But you should watch where you're aiming that thing."
Sora's gaze leapt from the empty roof to the wound in the redhead's arm, to Axel's face, and down to the strange weapon still clutched in his hands. "But I didn't –" He looked back at the blood dripping down Axel's arm. "Did I?" Axel only looked at him. Aghast, Sora let the weapon drop, and it disappeared in a burst of light upon striking the roof, only to reappear in his hand a second later. "What –"
They both turned to look at Roxas, who was gazing at the shadows already clambering over the edge of the roof once again, glowing eyes fixed on Sora. Roxas's weapons appeared in his hands once again, and this time Sora saw that the blades resembled highly stylized keys. "Get him out of here," the blond said flatly.
Axel regarded the shadows with a bitter sort of amusement before replying. "Whatever you say, Rox," he said, flicking a hand at the air behind him. Sora recoiled as a dark portal tore itself into existence. "C'mon, kid."
Sora backed away from him, eyes wide and nostrils flaring, heedless of the shadows swarming toward him. He unconsciously raised his weapon in a defensive posture, his hands shaking as he contemplated being forced back into that featureless non-existence.
Axel and Roxas exchanged glances shaded with a mixture of amusement and frustration before the redhead sighed. "Have it your way," he muttered. He darted forward, plucking Sora up and unceremoniously throwing him over a bony shoulder like a sack of flour. "I've got him," he announced, one arm locked around the back of Sora's knees. Sora's breath whooshed out of him as Axel's shoulder pressed into his stomach, and, disoriented by his sudden change of position, he clung to the back of the redhead's jacket with his free hand. "Don't drop that Keyblade, kid," Axel muttered as he launched himself forward, letting the portal fade away behind him.
Sora was bounced and jolted with every step, until he was half-convinced he was going to wind up with a permanent bruise across his midriff. Pushing himself up as best he was able, he strained his head around to try and see where they were going. Roxas fell into step beside the redhead, and together they dove back into the advancing shadows' midst.
Roxas ran out in front, cutting a path through the creatures with his blades; Axel followed close behind, destroying the few the blond missed with fire and steel. As the edge of the skyscraper's roof came into view, Roxas spun to face the direction from which they'd come, weapons crossed protectively over his body. "Keep him safe," he muttered as they flashed past him.
"Roxas!" Sora screamed as the shadows fell upon the other boy. "Axel, wait!" If the redhead heard him, he didn't acknowledge it, and Sora's mouth went dry when he twisted his head around to find that they were still flying toward the edge of the roof. "No, wait – wait!" Axel ignored him, foot coming down so close to the edge his toes poked over. Momentum pushed them on, Axel's body tilting forward in the beginnings of a fall, until Sora could once more look straight down the side of the building. "Axel!"
They hung there for what felt like an eternity until gravity finally took over and they dropped, plummeting toward the ground far below.