Disclaimer: If I owned it, I would build a ginormous pool in the middle of the Japanese Square store, fill it with merch, and go swimming at midnight, lit by the shiny surfaces everywhere. Pointy little Cloud hairs and Axel chakrams and Yuna staffs would pierce my skin, and I would be a happy bleeder :D Luckily for their finances, and the state of their merchandise AND store (and probably my mental/physical health), I have absolutely no claim on anything here but the plot and the writing ;) BUT SOMEDAY, SQUEENIX. SOMEDAY! /fist of determination/

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AN: Finally, all done! From here onwards, it's chaptered ficcage all the way :) As expected, after the Edit of Doom I now completely loathe this story and despair over the weeks spent writing it, since they feel wasted when compared to the result :S Still, it was written for a good cause, so I shrug in its general direction, and perhaps flip it off resentfully when no one's looking, in between beating my head in with steel beams and any other bludgeoning objects I can get my hands on. It's not masochism, it's self-directed sadism :D

Dedications! First of all, I never would have started writing this (crappy story) if it wasn't for kurosora1984 getting the invisible kiriban on my dA profile (invisible coz she was like, "Oh, I got twelve thousandth, cool!" and I went, "Hey, I should probably do a kiriban, right? Right? I'mma do you a kiriban. Three pages or so okay?") So I HOPE YOU LIKE YOUR KIRIBANZ, SALEM! LONGEST THREE FUCKING PAGES OF MY LIFE XD (Sorry it's baaaad D;)

And this is also a present filled with extra special love for my Decorinne, who has now officially graced my life with her wonderful presence for an entire year. If I quit fanfics tomorrow, and came away with only her friendship to show for it all, I could congratulate myself on a year brilliantly spent ^__^ Love you, Sarah! HAPPY LATE-ISH ANNIVERSARYYYYYYYYY! And since you'll be reading it when you actually have TIME to - HURRAY! YOU HAVE TIME AGAIN! (Sorry it's baaaad D;)

And to everyone – sorry it's baaaad D; Remember TU's chapter sixteen? All that rage and more! Fuck shit damn, eh wot.

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The Cold Heart of It

Pt. 1

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It was incredible, the way a place could feel like a ghost town with its inhabitants still roaming the streets.

The townspeople themselves still didn't know it, but that's all it was – a collection of buildings, emptying slowly of humanity, leaving coldness in their wake. It was obvious in the fear in their eyes that some part of them felt it… but those who remained, who hadn't decided the last few months were a fine time to gather up their things and move elsewhere, had it packed down too far to be able to recognise what it meant.

Axel rode into Hollow Bastion one dusky evening, the sun melting over the horizon, colours long since swirled together and now fading into grey darkness. The sound of his horse's hooves clopping over the stone paving was all that there was in the still streets, no sign of life as his green eyes scanned the building fronts that they passed. Flames burned in bulky lanterns, hanging from every corner, from every home, even from the empty businesses.

Despite the fact that no one was out, it seemed like the townspeople nevertheless wanted their streets well lit. Either they were impossibly considerate of any travellers that didn't know the apparent curfew – to the extent of squandering flammable materials on a permanent nightly basis – or someone around here was afraid of the dark.

Somehow, Axel got the feeling it was the latter.

Clicking his tongue quietly, heaving a breath and turning his eyes cautiously towards the darkening sky, he dug a heel into the horse, muttering, "Hup, Oathie." Their pace increased, the tired mare taking him along the main stretch of road to the local inn. Axel pulled to a halt, Oathkeeper's hooves digging at the ground, and eyed the establishment critically.

Gaze falling on the long water trough, he grimaced. Gripping the cracked-leather saddle, he swung himself down, as nimbly as he was able after having sat there for so goddamn long. Allowing a moment for staggering and getting the feeling back in his rear and thighs, he gathered the horse's reins in hand, tucking them neatly away from the street's surface, and led her several paces over toward the trough. It was obvious just how many visitors this town had been getting recently by the state of the water – it was covered in moss, leaves, other detritus blown in from the nearby woodland.

Wondering if Oathkeeper would even be able to drink it, Axel tied the reins to the long bar running above the trough, securing the horse tightly. He bent over it, a frown in place as he dipped his hands into the bobbing scum, dragging his fingers through to scrape as much of it to the sides as he could. The water splashed quietly as he quickly worked to clear it, making it more palatable for the thirsty mare.

Only when Oathkeeper lowered her nose and nudged him aside did he deem the job done, stepping back to wipe his leather gloves against his coat. She began to drink, apparently without any qualms as to the quality of the fare, and this was good enough for Axel. He unclipped the travelling pack from her saddle, slinging it over his own shoulders, patting her swiftly, nails scratching quickly at her neck.

Turning towards the brightly-lit inn, he started up the several short steps, tugging at the fingers of his damp gloves. The musky smell of his and the horse's combined perspiration clung to his skin and clothing, creating a pungent aroma he was anxious to be rid of. He looked forward to the thought of sleeping alone for a night, indoors for once. There was only so often a civilised man could endure the cold of the stars as his blanket. Naturally, it would be some hours yet before he could indulge in proper sheets and woollen coverings, but the mere promise of it had his heavy heart lightening just the slightest amount.

As he hopped up onto the porch, glancing back to check that Oathkeeper was still drinking, a cold wind blew sharply in from the northeast. Despite the several layers he wore, Axel felt it slip under his clothing, biting straight through to the flesh, as if he were fully, immodestly exposed, for the entire world to see.

The redhead paused mid-step, one glove still clinging to his fingers. Head swinging towards the gust, he stared blankly into the darkness. Behind him, Oathkeeper had stopped drinking with a snort, was shifting uneasily, tugging at her reins. Time seemed to hesitate while it blew, the lantern flames fluttering sideways despite their protective glass casing. In the silence, Axel could hear the wind's mournful voice slipping between the cracks and alleyways, slithering over rooftops, teasing weathervanes into creaking like trapped souls. It lasted for a full minute, before fading away again, leaving a hush behind.

"…Ease up, Oathie," he murmured, the horse tossing her head. Green eyes slowly scanning the lit street, biting down thoughtfully on the inside of his bottom lip, Axel drew a steady breath through his nose. "Everything's going to be… fine."

The man turned back towards the establishment, feeling somehow reluctant now, but nevertheless compelled to enter – after all, now that he was here, what else was there to do?

He pushed the broad door open, stepping into the warm interior, gaze flicking briefly around before stopping on a tall, rotund man with a small green hat over brown hair, reading a newspaper behind the counter. Upon seeing Axel enter, the man froze, a look of surprise on his face, quickly morphing into barely concealed suspicion. "…A traveller, are ye?" he supposed, looking the shabby redhead up and down in a critical once-over. "Hmph. Interesting clothes you've got there. Filthy, though. Don't look like you got much money, either."

Arching a brow, resisting the urge to ask who the hell he thought he was, Axel reached into one deep pocket of his coat, pulling out a jangling purse of coins. He held them up and jangled them together audibly, the man behind the counter brightening instantly at the sound of profit to be made.

Folding up his paper, the brunet leapt off his stool, straightening his shirt. "Oh, a customer, eh? Forgive me, lad – haven't had much of your sort around lately. Mostly just vagabonds what stray through here these days, and half of them, well… they'd just as soon steal your daughter as look at you twice, if you get my drift."

Axel cautiously approached the counter, boots thumping heavily over the wooden floorboards. "I – see."

Rubbing his hands together briefly, before reaching out either side and grabbing a quill, pot of ink, and the guest book, the innkeeper demanded, "Right, so you'd be looking for a room to board in, correct?" He flipped the heavy cover open, tongue sticking out as he scraped the quill's tip down the weathered pages until he found a space. "I'm thinking room Eight would be good for you – single bed, window overlooking the courtyard… Thirteen gil per night, that is. You got a horse? That's seven gil extra if you want it taken care of."

Axel hesitated only for a moment before dipping his head in agreement and fishing out the money. He was being fleeced, and he knew it, but at the present moment, he was too exhausted to care. Besides, with any luck, he'd make enough in this out-of-the-way town to make it up again and then some.

"Right-o, now you just sign your John Smith here on the little line, and we're a done deal," the man informed him, swinging the book around and handing Axel the freshly-dipped pen. The redhead scratched his name out, the brunet peering at it upside down. "Interesting letters you've got there, son," he curiously remarked. "Axel?"

"A-X-E-L," the redhead muttered, placing the quill down and straightening. "Memorise it. I'll be around for a few days. Maybe a week or two, depending on the business."

"Oh, aye?" Eyes lighting up with interest, the man drew the book back. "A travelling businessman, eh? Well, we're a good pair, then – used to be a wandering merchant, meself." He performed a flourishing little bow, lifting his hat, announcing, "O'aka XXIII, at your service – merchant extraordinaire!"

Axel stared at him for a few seconds, before blinking, shaking his head. "No. I'm a mercenary."

A wariness overcame the innkeeper, whatever camaraderie he'd felt towards the redhead withering abruptly. "Ah. I see, then. Well – not sure how much business you'll find here, no matter what you do for a living. Place has been clearing out for a while, y'see…"

"So I've heard," Axel softly agreed, digging his purse back into his pocket. "That's why I came. Less people means less competition. I'm hoping to make a little before I move on to Radiant Garden further up the mainland."

"Hmm. Right." The man was sounding less impressed with every new tidbit of information he learned, Axel growing amused by the fact. "Well, I do hope you enjoy your stay at O'aka's. Me brother'll take care of your horse nicely, just see if he don't." He reached beneath the desk, leaving the book open for the ink to dry from the new entry, and lifted up a heavy key for the redhead to take. "It's a pretty little room, fourth door up the stairs and down the corridor." Becoming stern, he added, "I'll be watching the company you bring back, too, Mister Axel. Anyone unsavoury or loose enters those doors, and you'll be out on the street with nothing but trouble for your troubles, you get me?"

Axel closed his eyes, fighting the small, incredulous smile that fought to break out over his features, instead giving his head a firm shake. "Don't worry about it. It'll just be me, I can guarantee it."

Self-importantly, the innkeeper nodded, flicked a hand. "Right, then we've no quarrels. Off with you, now, there might be other customers, and you've a rather ragged appearance." Leaning onto the counter with one elbow, his other hand already creeping back over towards the newspaper, he advised out of the corner of his mouth, "I'd fix that up if I was you, lad. No one's going to hire you as their shoe shiner while you're looking like you just got into a scrap with a chocobo and lost, let alone any kind of mersa-whatsit."

With a subtle roll of his eyes, Axel lifted one long finger up and tapped his forehead, saying, "I'll keep that in mind, thanks." Holding the key in hand, feeling its weight against his fingers, Axel headed for the stairs. Ascending, he entered into the narrow corridor, all its candle-sconces ablaze, the O'aka guy downstairs seemingly no less eager for ever-present light than anyone else around town.

By the looks of things, none of the other rooms were currently occupied… Odd. He knew that Hollow Bastion had been emptying out of late, but for a place of this size to have absolutely no visitors but himself…? Shrugging uncertainly, passing the several silent, locked doors, he continued on until he reached the one with a brass eight hammered to its wooden front. Fitting the key in, he clicked it to one side and pushed his way through.

The room was small, but clean, the bed narrow but the sheets firmly pressed and comfortable looking. There was a tiny nightstand holding a metal jug of water on top of a washcloth, and a window overlooking, as promised, a dingy little courtyard. Axel sighed, closing the door and performing a brief inspection, catching sight through the glass of a young man down below, most probably the brother the innkeeper had mentioned, leading Oathkeeper across towards the stables. The redhead was relieved to see her looking calmer again, the curious wind for the moment able to be forgotten.

Discovering several short candles and a book of matches in the nightstand's top drawer, Axel went around the room nursing a single flame behind his cupped hand, lighting them one by one and placing them around. Hollow Bastion weren't the only ones that preferred light to darkness.

Drawing the thick curtains across the window, effectively blocking out the courtyard and dark sky, Axel shed his pack and heavy, stinking clothing, letting it pool at his feet before kicking it away. Dipping the washcloth into the jug provided, he quickly cleaned himself as thoroughly as possible, wiping away the grime and sweat of the days that had passed since he'd last met a river to bathe in. Wearily holding himself up with one hand on the nightstand, water dripping slowly from his chin and glinting in the candlelight, Axel closed his eyes and allowed himself to stop thinking for a while, feeling only the coldness, the scrape of the cloth, hearing the droplets hit the floor beneath him.

At last, he paused, realising that time was wasting away, and hesitantly let the washcloth slide back into the water jug. Shivering now, he bent, retrieved the travelling pack, slinging it up onto the bed and frowning in concentration as he wrestled with the tightly-bound buckles and belts. Throwing back the thick leather flap, he reached in, pushing aside every necessity he'd accumulated over the months, and grabbing hold of his second set of clothing, tucked down the very bottom. He yanked the articles out, jerking them past each obstacle until they was free. Smoothing everything out, he pulled each item on, noting the scent of horse clinging to the fabric – there really was no escape from it.

Eventually straightening, he pushed his sweaty clothing into a pile with one toe, snatching his coat up and pulling it on, its folds settling over his slender frame. He then stepped up onto the mattress, sinking into a cross-legged position on the blankets, and returned to the confines of his bag, hooking out the rarely used comb and attacking his hair, almost wild after so long without grooming. Straightening each spike into something more manageable took time, and night had firmly gripped the world by the time Axel had finished. However, as he stepped off the bed and pulled his boots back on, he was at least looking less of one of the vagabonds the innkeeper had described and perhaps more the type of man one could imagine hiring.

Tidying up his belongings, closing his pack back up and sliding it under the bed frame to hide it immediately from prying eyes, he headed back out the door, locking it firmly and stamping downstairs. He passed the innkeeper, hands in pockets, briefly pausing to gain directions to the nearest bar before continuing out into the darkness.

Walking without Oathkeeper's reins in hand felt odd – they had been on the road for some weeks since the last town, and he was accustomed to her constant presence. It was somewhat liberating, walking as a lone man, and yet a little like having had something amputated – a sense of something missing… More, that is, than ordinarily dogged him, at least.

Shaking off such thoughts, Axel followed the man's instructions to the nearby tavern, soon happening upon an establishment even more brightly lit than any of the others. Light flowed out of its open doors and windows, like a beacon, warm and welcoming. Relieved to find somewhere at last that he would be able to feel some sense of familiarity, Axel made a beeline for the doorway, sidestepping a drunkard already passed out in the gutter and stepping up into the friendly atmosphere.

At least… friendly was how it had seemed from the outside. In truth, upon entering its confines, Axel noticed with a frown that despite the size of the place, there was really only a scattering of patrons. They were clumped together in small groups, heads close together, drinking quietly. The redhead couldn't remember the last time he saw such a subdued crowd when there hadn't been a death to complement it – and even then, there tended to be more people. Had he underestimated the amount of outgoing traffic from Hollow Bastion? If this was the nightlife, would the daytime be comatose?

Eyes scanning the room warily, he slowly made his way to the bar, attracting looks from the drinkers, some curious, others narrow, ignoring them all as he zeroed in on a barstool and slid his lanky frame up onto it. Only one other man sat at the bar, a grizzled-looking old blond in stained clothing, hunched over his beer.

The barkeeper, a dark-haired woman with a critical eye, approached him cautiously, rubbing a glass dry with a clean rag. Several others trickled upside down on the bar nearby. "Can I help you, sir?"

The blond down the counter jerked his head slightly, startled out of a reverie by the sound of her voice, turning and blinking at Axel, before interrupting, "Holy shit, Tifa. You got a customer."

She shot down an exasperated look. "I have other customers, too, Cid. One of which is you."

Snorting, the man responded, "Yeah, but you see my stinkin' face every day of the damn week – how long has it been since fresh blood entered this town, woman?"

"Fresh blood?" Axel echoed, arching an eyebrow.

"Please, sir, don't pay any attention to him," the woman said, sending the blond a sharp glance. "He's been sitting in that chair a little too long."

The man grunted, muttering into his drink, "About twenty years oughta cover it."

Turning to Axel patiently, she asked again, "Can I get you something? Beer, mead?"

Lifting a couple of coins from his pocket, he slid them across the bar and requested, "Beer." As she went to get it, the gil clinking in her palm, he turned to the blond and asked, "So, I'm that much of a rarity, am I?"

The man laughed gruffly. "You can ask that with a straight face with that hair?" As green eyes rolled, he turned on his stool, shooting the redhead an appraising look before extending a calloused hand. "The name's Cid. I run Highwind's on the corner. If you're stayin' at the inn, you mighta seen it coming over here."

"…The kite place?" Axel fought to recall. Cid sniffed indignantly.

"It's an aerodynamics workshop, Sunshine. We have recreational kites, yes, but I also focus on gliders and the like."

"Ah…hah." Axel drummed his fingers on the counter, the barmaid returning a moment later with his beer. He thanked her and picked it up, sipping at the head, before tilting it back and gulping at the bitter alcohol beneath.

"You look like you need that," Cid shrewdly observed. "You gon' introduce yourself, or am I gonna keep calling you 'Sunshine', Sunshine?"

Reluctantly lowering his drink, Axel wiped his mouth. "Axel. I came here looking for work."

There was a brief silence, before the man crowed with laughter, even the barkeeper shaking her head with a soft, incredulous huff of amusement. "I guess you're not from around these parts," she said, resuming the wiping of empty cups while around the room the cliental quietly drank. "There's no work to be had in Hollow Bastion – it's a dying town, Axel."

"Tifa's right," Cid agreed, wiping tears of mirth from the corners of his eyes. "Oh, mercy, you're a worry, kid. You ride with your head in the clouds, or what? How'd you miss that a place like this ain't gonna be hirin' anytime soon? We're big news around these parts, don'tchaknow?"

Axel nodded seriously. "I know. I heard. It's why I came."

The blond and brunette exchanged disbelieving glances. "So… you're an idiot, then?" Cid guessed.

"Cid Highwind!" Tifa whacked him with the rag. "For God's sake!"

The man's expression darkened briefly. "Ain't no God roundabout here, honey. Don't you forget it." His words seemed to hang in the air, as if at that very moment, the entire tavern chose to draw breath at the same time, creating a vacuum of silence in which for Cid's voice to echo. He added in a mutter, "Can't do anything for His sake if He ain't even here." He paused to drink, the barmaid deflating slightly. Noticing Axel's curious expression, she smiled thinly, composing herself, resuming her drying task.

"I'm afraid you must have made a mistake of some kind," she offered, pretending nothing out of the ordinary had been said. "Hollow Bastion won't be hiring because it's emptying – the tradesmen have been leaving with their families, looking for larger towns to work in. The business opportunities all went sour a while back, and the place is steadily getting quieter. So if you were hoping for some vacancies where others had been working before they left, you were wrong. I'm sorry."

Axel, however, shook his head. "I'm not looking for common work, ma'am. I'm a mercenary. People pay me to find people that have gone missing, to settle debts or bring them to justice – anyone's idea of justice – and sometimes I get sent out for runaways. I figured, a place like this, where people are disappearing over time –"

"Where'd you hear about people disappearing?" Cid cut in sharply, barstool scraping the ground as he leaned abruptly forward. His gaze was intense – so, Axel noticed with a sideways glance, was Tifa's. They were both staring at him, pupils a little more dilated than before.

He paused for a long moment, mind ticking over. Eyes narrowing, he looked at each of them calculatingly, cleared his throat. "…People are – disappearing in Hollow Bastion?"

Leaning closer still, voice becoming hard like rock, Cid growled, "I asked you where you heard that, Sunshine."

Axel regarded him calmly, arms folding over his chest, meeting the man's gaze, before responding shortly, "You. Just now." Unwinding one arm, he picked up his beer, taking a few swallows while they attempted to register the three uttered syllables. Licking his lips, tasting clinging droplets, the redhead carefully replaced his tankard on the counter. "It would seem," he said neutrally, "that I came to the right place, after all."

"So, what you're saying is… what you're saying," Cid summarised dubiously, "is that – you look for people that go missing for various reasons and bring 'em back… and I just alerted you to the fact that your services might be a little necessary?"

Axel nodded. "That's about it," he confirmed, to which Tifa sighed again, "Cid Highwind."

Defensively, the blond argued, "Well, you thought the same as I thought – I could see it in your face! The way he said it made it sound like…" He shook his head with an irritated sound, before glaring at Axel. "You hunt people? Never heard of that sort of profession before… What turns a man to that sort of life, anyhow?"

The redhead hesitated, aware that any trust he might receive from these people – whatever money he hoped to earn in this place – depended heavily on his answer. It was easy for others to make snap-judgements on his choice of work, and rarely did they put him in a positive light. Too often, he'd been rejected based on his self-proclaimed 'mercenary' status. Swallowing against the sudden dryness of his throat, he lowered his eyes, said, "...I'm looking for someone. Someone important to me went missing a while ago. It's my hope that, maybe while I'm looking for other people... I'll find him, too."

They studied him for a moment, neither one speaking, before Tifa finally let out a soft, wondering laugh lacking in mirth. "I don't believe it. You're being truthful. My God, that's a sad story."

Slightly placated, but not quite willing to believe him just yet, Cid demanded, "What'd you used to do, before your friend went missing?"

"Steel-forge apprentice," Axel promptly answered. He lifted up hands mottled with old burns for proof. "I maintained the fires." After letting them blink at the browns intersecting the pinks for a moment, he reached again for his drink. "I'm good at what I do now, though. I have a good ear for information, and I'm a top-rate tracker. There might not be many people like me out in the working world, but that's what makes me valuable." Taking a sip, he went on, "I'm heading up towards Radiant Garden ultimately, but I figured, a place like this, people jumping ship like they are, there might be a few debts left unpaid that I could find work hunting down." Returning his cup to the bar, he held his hands out again, in a gesture of peace this time, and added, "That's the absolute, honest truth, I promise. I'm just a regular guy looking for work."

"Huh," Cid grunted. "You can call it 'regular' if you want." He rapped his knuckles on the counter. "Tifa, I believe this calls for another round. I am in sudden need of fortitude."

She sighed, placing the dried glass down, sweeping up his tankard and taking it over to fill up further down the bar. Watching her go, Axel caught sight of a small stove working in the background, against the wall behind her, a large pot on the fire with heavy steam rolling up from its innards, boiling violently. She ignored it completely, refilling the blond's cup and returning it to his elbow. Axel twisted and watched for a moment as the man started instantly drinking. There was an oppressed air about them both now that hadn't been there at the beginning of the conversation. Or, at least – Axel hadn't been aware of it like he was now. There was a gloom to their expressions, an age to their skin that didn't exist in the inhabitants of the other towns and cities he'd been to, not standardly like this.

Nursing the last of his own beer, he studied them for several quiet moments. "…So. People are disappearing. What can you tell me about that?"

Cid grimaced into his tankard, muttered, "What's to tell? It's been happening for goin' on two years now, steadily enough. One by one, without discrimination, we have been… vanishing. It's only been in the last six months that people've been taking the hint and packing up."

Axel squinted as he slid his elbow onto the bar. "The – hint?"

"Cid." Tifa spoke warningly, pausing in her constant drying motions. She clinked down the glass, the collection of dried ones gradually outnumbering the wet. "Don't start."

The blond eyed her for a moment, a contemplative expression in place as he swished his beer in its tankard, lips pursed a little, before telling Axel, "…Yeah. The hint. We extended too far. Crossed some boundaries we didn't know were there. Trod some sacred land not made for human feet." He lifted his face, gazing blandly at the wall, tipping his drink into his mouth for a moment, swallowing. "Only changelings and half-lifers can take the form of men there and not wind up dead."

Tifa let out a noise of disapproval. "Ghost stories," she dismissed, with a scowl. "Stop trying to scare Axel, it won't do anyone any good."

The man lifted his broad shoulders loosely. "I dunno. Might put him on his guard." He tilted his tankard at the redhead. "Don't go into the woods, kid, that's all I'm sayin'. We went into their territory, and they got pissed and started coming into ours. Since then, people've been dropping off the face of the planet, and none of them have ever been seen again."

Axel frowned, splaying a hand on the wooden counter. "And that's where I come in. Pardon me, Mister Highwind, but I don't go in for faerie tales. I'm not going to scoff at your beliefs, but if there are people that've gone missing in the woods near here, then that is exactly where I need to be going." He turned to Tifa, her chin lowered, eyes dark, following the conversation warily. "Who was the most recent person to go missing? That's the best place for me to start. I'd like to offer my services to their family."

She hesitated. "…Master Biest. He and his wife, Belle, live up in the old castle – he has some distant royal heritage. Her father went missing several weeks back, and she went out alone to find him… probably about three weeks ago now."

Eyebrows lifting, Axel asked, "She hasn't been seen for three weeks? What's been done since then?"

There was a brief silence, before Cid grunted, "Well, her husband's been brooding a lot."

Axel sighed. "I see. Okay. So, if I go up to that… castle, in the morning and announce myself as someone interested in finding his wife, Biest's going to be interested?"

Tifa was uneasy. "He isn't very – sociable, without Belle. She's his grounding force. With her gone… he's just as likely to chase you off the estate."

Cid, however, disagreed. "He's broken without her, Tif. He's not chasin' anyone anywhere. He's wasting away without Belle."

Axel went still, a blankness falling across his features. He blinked slowly, eyes going distant for several seconds. "Well… I'll just have to get her back for him, won't I?" he softly said. Then tipping his head down and scraping a hand through his hair, he finished his beer, adding cockily as he placed the tankard back on the counter, "That'd be for a fee, of course."

Cid shot him a narrow look, but chose not to comment, instead muttering, "Tifa, you're boilin'," as he sank his nose back into his drink. The woman turned towards the stove, the steam rolling like a screen, the water hissing and bubbling, evaporating rapidly away. Uncertainly, she hesitated, then said, "I'll leave it a while yet."

Axel shot the pot a dubious look. "It's, uh – not going to boil any more than it has."

Cid shook his head minutely. "Leave her be, Sunshine. Woman knows what she's doing. Water around here's been bad for months, but none of us've got sick from her cups yet."

This place just got better and better. "Bad water?" Axel echoed, resting his cheek against his knuckles, weariness rising.

The man's expression darkened. "Mm. That's the work of them changelings. Dead baby spirits, every one." Tifa sighed sharply, disappearing to go stop the water from boiling, apparently incapable of listening further to the blond's wild theories. She flipped the rag over onto her shoulder, grabbing a pair of metal tongs and dipping them into the pot, as Cid elaborated, "People started getting sick maybe half a year ago. Bad stuff, nasty symptoms. Makes the skin and eyes go freaky. The wells we usually draw from've been tainted, but not only that; it's spread so you can't find a decent drink anywhere roundabout. You gotta boil the hell out of it to make it any good – and I do mean that literally."

"Superstitious nonsense," Tifa muttered under her breath, just loud enough to travel to the pair. Both glanced around at her, Cid looking annoyed.

"You can call it superstition if you want," he argued, "but you're the one boiling it til it's virtually gone, aren'tcha, Tif?" He exhaled shortly as she grimaced, turning her back and once again disassociating herself from the conversation as she focused on fishing mugs from the bubbling depths. Twisting to Axel, the man said emphatically, "Now you listen here, kid, and listen good – you've got a fine little sob-story to your life already. My advice is to get out of Hollow Bastion before it goes gettin' worse, you understand me? No good can come out of this." He swigged his beer, glaring at the sceptical redhead over the rim. "Belle's gone, and she ain't comin' back. All you'll do by goin' out there after her is perpetuatin' the whole situation. You'll be another statistic, Sunshine, just wait and see if you ain't."

Axel lowered his lips to his knuckles, feeling them press through the soft, warm flesh against the hardness of his teeth. He sucked a breath through his nose, saying nothing for a moment. Whatever hope had started growing on Cid's face at the apparent contemplation died, however, as he shifted his mouth slightly to the side and said heavily, "I can't do that. You can say she's gone…" Green eyes lifted slowly, intense, and settled on the blond's faded blue. Disapproval spread across Cid's face as he took in Axel's expression. "…but you don't know that she's not coming back. And I'm not going to leave while there's a man somewhere thinking that she won't. I know what it's like, when they really don't come back. If I can make that stop for someone, then I will."

The blond swayed forward, bloodshot gaze burning with frustration. "You don't understand. They have Belle, the spirits in the forest have taken her. You can't get her back. She is gone."

Quietly, with just as much emphasis, Axel replied, "You are full of shit, old man. I told you, I don't believe your faerie stories."

Eyes narrowing, Cid held his unrelenting gaze stonily, a silent battle of wills going on which both knew the older male wasn't going to win. At last, he sighed, straightening reluctantly on his stool, and held his beer close. "…I get it. Not many folk around here believe in it, I'll admit." Sighing slowly, he added in a murmur, "Don't make it any less true, though."

Turning his head to Tifa, Axel asked, "So, do you think you can give me directions to Biest's place? I didn't see any castles riding in earlier."

Cid muttered, "You'd have been better if you hadn't seen Hollow Bastion at all. Mark my words, Sunshine. You go after her, and it'll be the last thing you do."

Both Axel and Tifa ignored him, as difficult as it was, and the woman explained to him as clearly as possible the way to reach the castle.

He left the tavern several minutes later, feeling the cool air washing over him, the darkness suddenly deeper with the brightness of the light behind him. He stepped down off of the porch and closed his eyes on the world as, back at the bar, Cid started humming a baritone, mournful dirge, the sound drifting out into the night.

-x-

Finding Biest's castle the next morning proved easier than Axel had expected. He had slept awkwardly, unaccustomed to the feel of the cheap mattress – though one imagined, spending so much time sleeping on the rocky ground like he did, he'd be used to so many lumps – and had woken with a general feeling of being unsettled. Unsettled in this room, this town, in life.

Despite this, he had dressed, eaten the complimentary breakfast provided by the inn's small kitchen, and had the stable-boy saddle up Oathkeeper. The roads of Hollow Bastion were surprisingly busy as he rode out into them, alive with traders performing their early errands, goods being delivered, shoppers milling about. For the size of the place, Hollow Bastion could indeed be considered virtually empty, but in concentration, the population was still reasonably dense. Axel supposed that if it weren't, none of them would be able to stay, never mind being driven out by nameless fears and disappearances.

Navigating his mare through the crowds was an easy enough task, and the directions he'd got from the barkeeper proved to be usefully direct. Before long, he found himself travelling up the steep paths towards the old castle, dilapidated on the outside but no doubt luxurious enough within. He couldn't imagine anyone descended from royalty living any other way, especially not if his wife had any standards.

Poking Oathkeeper with a heel, he increased their pace, half-cantering the last little bit to the long driveway, the land levelling sharply, cobblestones springing up beneath the horse's hooves, slowing to a trot. Axel's gaze rose to take in the behemoth, awkwardly deposited over the town like some kind of misshapen sentinel. Its appearance hovered somewhere between uniquely attractive and flat-out ugly. He was glad, in the back of his mind, that he'd never have to live in its shadow for more than a couple of weeks at most.

Drawing Oathkeeper to a halt, he gathered the reins and dismounted, glancing around cautiously for signs of life. Either no one was in residence, or no one had noticed him arrive; although he was right near to the main entrance, there wasn't a glimpse of any attendants, not even to demand what he was doing and kick him off the property. Shrugging, huffing out a breath, he led the mare over to a fence and lashed her to it. Fishing two apples out of the pack strapped to her side and feeding her one, he left the other balanced on the fence to occupy her as he walked away. He mounted the pale, stone walkway, dragging hardened fingertips along the rough railing, all that stood between him and a dizzying drop down into some misty chasm bordering the massive structure. Lifting his head from where he'd been peering down, he puffed a breath into his cheeks, shaking away the vertigo that scratched at his nerves, focusing on the large double-doors as he approached.

Still, no one had noticed his presence. Deciding the only way to remedy this was to announce himself, he knocked on the thick wood, stinging his knuckles against the unforgiving surface. The noise was ineffective. After waiting several moments, he instead wrapped his hands around one rust-ridden ring passing for some giant's idea of a door handle, lifted it up, and let it slam back into place. Now that echoed. He could hear the reverberations on the other side, and waited expectantly for someone to come investigate.

As it was, it took perhaps three minutes for the door to finally grind inward, Axel long-gone past impatience and wondering if the entire place was in fact deserted, and being sent here was just some idea of a local joke. When a face peeped cautiously out, eyes narrowed suspiciously, he stepped back, bent around to meet the newcomer's eyes, a polite smile in place. "Morning," he greeted.

"State your business," the round face on the other side commanded imperiously, the redhead's smile becoming slightly fixed.

Tone as civil as ever, he returned, "I'd like to speak to Master Biest, please. Private business."

The short man with the pencil-thin moustache glared in irritation. "The castle accepts no solicitors. Get off the estate at once. The master isn't expecting you, and will have nothing to do with you."

"It's about his wife," Axel cut in swiftly, leaning forward with his hands clasped behind his back. Intently, he repeated, "It's about Belle."

The portly figure hesitated a moment too long. "…What would you know about Madame?"

"Cogsworth? What's that about Madame?" A thickly accented voice butted in from somewhere within, footsteps approaching, the short man's eyes rolling broadly, before shutting in exasperation as a tall, slender man took the door from his grasp and pulled it open more accommodatingly. Surprised at the sight of the redhead standing out in the sunlight, he asked, "You know the whereabouts of Madame Belle, sir?"

"No," Axel replied patiently. "But I'd like to talk to Master Biest regarding the matter of her disappearance."

The man frowned. "Are you trying to discover what happened to her?"

"That," he said calmly, "depends on what her husband has to say."

"Lumiere, come away. He's obviously some form of con artist," the short one blustered. "Any unsavoury fool could just wander through town and hear about Madame Belle's disappearance, and see it as an opportunity to come up and cause mischief!"

Scrutinising the redhead for a moment, the taller one replied, "Hmm, I don't know. He has an air of earnestness about him."

"That's what makes a good con artist good!" came the frustrated response, hands flung into the air.

The slender man clapped his companion on the shoulder, scolding affectionately, "Oh, Cogsworth, have a heart. The gentleman has given no reason to suspect foul intentions, has he?"

"Gentleman? This scruffy, wild-haired –!"

Cogsworth was shoved aside, an elegant hand outstretching, Axel's ally inviting, "Please, Monsieur, come in. If there is anything you can do to find Madame Belle, anything at all, then I am sure the master will be happy to listen."

Cogsworth straightened his clothing grouchily. "We'll just see about that! I do not trust him, Lumiere. You can go inform the master of his presence, whilst I keep a firm eye on him, and all the master's belongings."

Utterly unoffended, pleased, in fact, that the one most likely to get him an audience would be going to announce him, Axel merely smiled. "That's probably smart of you," he drawled. "You never can tell who to trust these days, can you?"

"Forgive him," Lumiere muttered despairingly. "Please, do not pay him any mind. I will go inform the master that you are waiting, Monsieur." He bowed, disappearing, leaving the redhead under the glaring gaze of Cogsworth. The moustached man stood stiffly in place, narrow eyes glued to the thin mercenary, while Axel dug his hands into his deep pockets, gaze lifting to the ceiling, and began to whistle tunelessly. The breathy sound travelled easily in the large, hollow space, bouncing from one wall to the next, and the next, until the air was a gentle reverberation of sound. The little man just glowered all the more, barely blinking in his efforts to catch the interloper in any act of sleight-of-hand treachery.

Eyeing the stained-glass windows with interest, Axel whiled away the minutes easily, until the sound of footfalls returned, distracting both he from his whistling, and Cogsworth from his scowling. The slender attendant re-entered the front hall, and performed a graceful bow. "Please, Monsieur, the master will see you now. Follow me to the West Wing."

While Cogsworth's expression darkened, Axel tipped him a wink and briefly saluted as he walked away, joining Lumiere with long strides. The man twisted on the spot, posture precise, and began leading the way, out of the lighter entranceway and into the darker depths of the castle.

Axel followed curiously, passing through the dusky, dusty passages with his guide, the occasional pool of coloured light streaming through stained glass illuminating and mottling his skin and clothing. Though Lumiere's gait was confident, when he spoke, the man's voice was hesitant as he said, "I do hope that Monsieur will be able to make headway on Madame Belle's disappearance. I must apologise for the current state of the castle. It is usually much better attended, but with Madame gone, the master, he…" Struggling against whatever must have felt like disloyalty on the tip of his tongue, the servitor changed tack. "We have only a skeleton crew, Monsieur. Much of the staff have either moved away from Hollow Bastion, or been granted temporary leave in the face of Madame's loss." He bent humbly at the waist as they walked. "I hope you will forgive any lapse in appearance in light of this."

"Forget about it." Axel waved him off. "Anything I can do to get her back, I will. All your master's gotta do is hire me, and I'll track her down."

Bowing more deeply – the guy was knee-deep in shows of courtesy – Lumiere murmured, "If only it could happen, I know the entire castle would rejoice. Thank you."

They continued wordlessly, mounting an elegantly curving staircase and heading down along the darkest hallway yet. In this section of the castle, all windows had been blanketed by large, thick, black draperies, the silence a palpable force, the stillness of the air disturbed by the slightest whisper of motion. The pair of them walking its length, under the eyes of the old suits of armour, the marble busts of personages long left the world, felt like an invasion. The master of the castle, Axel could see, had virtually lost his will to live. Whoever Madame Belle was, she had taken the light from this place when she had left. All that remained was blank mourning.

It almost made one want… to hate the wielder of the light. Someone with that much responsibility riding on their shoulders should never go and get themself vanished. They had a duty to remain safe, in order to perpetuate all the darker beings that depended on them. When they were gone, only emptiness was left.

Lumiere halted outside a wooden set of doors, turning to him and saying, "Please, Monsieur, through here is the master's study. He is waiting for you." Then, gripping the ornate handle, he pushed it down, and let Axel through.

Dust and agony stifled the air. It was cold, repressive, angry. He could feel it, the second he stepped through. Biest hadn't just been brooding since his wife had gone; he had been hating existence with a passion, so much so that it clung to the walls, the dull light fittings, the furniture.

"Perhaps," Lumiere struck up lightly, sounding flat in this smothered room, "Master would allow me to draw the curtains and let some light into the –"

"No. You may not. Leave." Axel couldn't immediately see the man himself, but his voice had travelled from beyond a set of shelves, in the deeper shadows at the corner of the room. "I will deal with the visitor now."

Lumiere stooped briefly in acknowledgement, clicking the door shut a moment later, leaving Axel alone with the unseen, suffering entity. Cautiously, he stepped further into the large room, inhaling to clear his throat and instead coughing roughly on thick dust.

"My servant tells me you're looking for my wife," the deep voice growled from the darkness. Cautiously scrutinising his surroundings, Axel slowly navigated the man's study, taking in the evidence of his state of mind as it gradually grew clearer to his adjusting eyes. Many paintings had been torn from the walls and destroyed, slashed and smashed; vases were broken, glass littering the carpet; small tables had been split apart, chair legs torn asunder from their bases, shelving ripped out and thrown, displayed items scattering. All of this felt old, however – Axel guessed that it had been several days since any new attack had occurred. Rage was evidently a response that Biest had to helplessness, but it seemed, with the three week mark being passed, to be fading rapidly into raw, despondent hopelessness instead.

"I'd like to," Axel replied quietly, honestly. "If she's out there, then I want to –"

"What do you mean if?" came the roar, a sudden shift in the shadows further ahead, a violent flash of movement.

The redhead froze, eyes wide, abruptly feeling like maybe he was facing a wild, caged animal instead of a mere man. Drawing each breath steadily, he replied, "Wherever she is. Let me find her for you."

The motion quieted, the snort of an exhalation chuffing in the silence. "What is your name? My servant… he neglected to tell me."

Resuming his careful traversing of broken furniture, the redhead said, "Axel. I'm a mercenary, sir. I find people for a fee."

There was a grunt from the shadows. "So, that's how it is."

"Everyone's gotta make a living…" Vibrantly green eyes scanned the darkness as he sidled nearer to the man's hiding place. There was some rustling, his gaze darting over towards a large section of the wall that had been blacked by coverings, a few slivers of light peeping around the edges, suggesting that perhaps beyond the obscuring draperies was one of the many patios dotting the outer castle walls. He stopped suddenly, attention caught by motion out of the corner of his eye, gaze zeroing in on it, wishing that the man would quit the game and just come out already.

"So… you want to make your living, do you?" Biest's shadow crossed quickly back across to the opposite corner, Axel finally able to make out his shape but not getting a chance to step forward before he shifted again, more than restless pacing, more like a predatory stalk. Trying to keep up with how swiftly he moved around, opening his mouth, Axel prepared to further sell himself to the man, when Biest suddenly lunged forward into the weak light, snarling, "A living out of my wife?!"

He swung a hard backhand at Axel's face, the redhead dodging breathlessly and staggering back, shielding his head as Biest began slamming his fists into the nearest bookcase, into the wall, smashing an already broken chair aside with splitting knuckles, all control gone without even a second's warning. "Get out!" he bellowed furiously, heaving up a cracked, spinning atlas, heaving it across the room. "OUT!"

Axel backed quickly towards the door, sidestepping obstructions, tripping and stumbling, alarmed by the sheer aggression boiling and bubbling within the room. No longer was there stillness, only pure rage whipping about in a frenzy. "I only want to help you find her!" he yelled desperately, as the door banged open behind him, the two serving men from before spilling quickly into the room with panic in their faces. A hand wrapped around Axel's elbow, readying to wrench him out, but then Biest had crossed the distance between them like lightning, had grabbed Axel by the collar and yanking him away from their protection, swinging him around and shaking him violently, almost screaming now, "You want to take my money? You want to take my money and leave town? You dare to think I would trust you with the task of finding Belle?!" He slammed the redhead into wall, once, twice, the world tilting on an axis and growing blurry around the edges as he gasped. Futile hands grasped at Biest's preternaturally powerful arms, the pleas of the servants pouring out frantically.

"Master, no! You must not!"

"Please, Master, control yourself!"

"Payment upon delivery only!" Axel choked, as the man's hands found their way to crushing his throat. "On delivery!"

Cogsworth clawed anxiously at Biest's forearms, repeating at a yell, "You hear that, Master? He won't get a single gil until Madame is back, safe here in the castle! He isn't trying to rob you, he isn't! The only time you pay him is if Madame Belle returns!"

"If?!" Biest whipped his head around.

"When! When, Master, when he brings her back!"

Biest's eyes narrowed, chest heaving, focusing slowly on the round, anxious face below his, the knitted eyebrows, the fear. Then, as understanding began to filter through, he lessened his grip, expression changing gradually from furious to blank, brow smoothing. He moved his hands away from Axel, who inhaled gratefully, neck throbbing, and cracked open his eyes to find Biest glaring at him, their noses a bare inch apart. The man exhaled sharply through his nose, growled, "Alright," and stepped away.

Touching his strangled throat gingerly, Axel eyed the master of the castle guardedly, debating whether or not to just get the hell out and try again when the man was feeling – perhaps the slightest bit less murderous.

"You're hired," Biest muttered, as he stalked away, returning to the back of the room. This time, however, he didn't retreat so far into the darkness. Flanked by the man's servants, who were shooting him wide-eyed looks, Axel cautiously followed after him. He found Biest sitting at a desk, illuminated by stray, pencil-thin beams of sunlight ploughing through the dust-motes in the air. As he stopped, several feet from the man's back, he saw that Biest was gently touching a red rose in a small vase.

Able to finally properly view the man, he noted grimly that Biest was indeed a complete and utter shambles. His clothing was finely made, but rumpled, haggard. He'd have been surprised if the man had changed more than twice in the last three weeks, and even then probably not of his own accord. His hair was wild and matted, he hadn't shaved even once by the looks of him, and his nails had grown too long. Cid had been right about him – without his wife, he was broken.

"The master… the master apologises for attacking you," Cogsworth tremulously offered, all previous bluster long gone. Biest grunted dismissively.

"Sorry."

Axel smoothed down his coat, repressing the anger that desired to build in response to all the adrenaline flooding his system. Instead, he took a deep, calming breath, reminding himself that not only was there a woman missing, but he needed the money as well, and croakily said, "You're going to need to give me some details. I need a starting point."

Biest's touch hesitated on the rose, lowering instead to the slender neck of the vase, stroking it contemplatively. His head turned stiffly, a set of startlingly blue eyes regarding him for the first time as someone who just might be able to make the pain and emptiness go away. There was fear there, too, though – he was wary of failure. Weary from having to feel so intensely for so long, and worried it would happen all over again.

"Do you… really think… that you'll get her back?" he asked, voice rough from so much screaming, from days and weeks of it, husky from the intermittent silences.

Axel folded his arms, eyeing him cautiously. "I can't guarantee anything. But it's a start, isn't it? If I'm out there looking for her, there's a chance she'll be found. If you give me somewhere to begin, you'll be that much closer to getting her back."

Biest's gaze slipped back around to stare vacantly at the rose. "…Yes. She went into the forest. Three weeks… and three days ago. Her father had taken a horse and cart out to transport one of his inventions to some fair further inland. He took a map. He shouldn't have got lost, but… we didn't hear anything from him in a while, and then the horse… Philippe… came home. Without him." He raised his hands, hooking his fingers and looking impassively at his nails. "There were – claw marks on his hide."

Axel's brows rose sharply. "Wild animals? You think the old man got attacked, maybe?"

Biest shook his head slowly. "Hard to say. The only… wild animals around these parts are the wolves, and they…" He hunched his shoulders. "I told her not to go," he growled, voice beginning to rise. "But she wouldn't listen to me. She never listens!" He slammed a fist into the desk, the vase knocking dangerously, and in the next instant he was grabbing for with a stricken expression, snatching it before it could fall. Behind him, Axel saw Cogsworth and Lumiere flinch forwards, restraining themselves from both leaping over to steady everything.

Releasing a slow breath, Biest made sure the rose wasn't going to tumble, and withdrew his hands to fold under his arms, pinning them away from any further temptation of violence. "I, like you," the man continued more softly, "was worried that it could have been some kind of pack of beasts. That – her father's fate might have been long sealed. But Belle, she… she didn't think so. She was convinced that Philippe had been injured after her father had gone missing from the reins. The horse had some other injuries as well, small scratches from… from tree-branches, and sores from the cart stirrups. But nothing that suggested any major struggle with animals, despite… the marks, and any wolves would have been driven off while he was riding. He had flares for protection. She thought that if Maurice… her father… had somehow been tossed from the cart, then he would be in need of assistance."

"And she went out to provide some," Axel surmised with a sigh. He dipped his head briefly in thought, then lifted it and asked, "No one went with her? She was alone?"

Biest's eyes shut, the fabric of his waistcoat bunching as his fingers tightened into fists. "No," he answered tightly. "No one. I… forbade her from going, fearing that she would be injured. And so… she snuck away. She took Philippe, and left without telling… a soul." Axel could feel the regret and impotent rage rolling from Biest's flesh like a physical force – both at his wife, and at he himself. When he spoke again, it was at almost a whisper. "I was… a fool to think I could cage her." His chin went down to his chest, as he grated, "A fool, a fool, a fool, a fool!" His body grew agitated, legs beginning to jump, shoulders struggling as he fought the need to explode, knees hitting the desk again and again, the vase beginning to rock.

"Master, calm yourself," the slender servitor pleaded quietly. "Monsieur Axel is going to do everything in his power to retrieve her."

"You mustn't blame yourself, sir," Cogsworth added hopelessly. "You tried to stop her, you did, you tried."

Arms wrapped so tightly around himself that they almost resembled a straitjacket, Biest snarled through his teeth, "So why didn't she listen? Did she think I was doing it for my health? Because I enjoy denying her things?!"

"Madame Belle has always had an independent heart, Master, you know it cannot be controlled," Lumiere dejectedly reminded him. "She follows it wherever it will take her… even if that means defying her beloved husband and heading into danger."

Biest calmed himself with effort, obviously biting the inside of his mouth, sucking in an enormous, unsteady breath and holding it for several moments. When he released it again, it had worked to some degree; he was able to lessen his grip on himself, and worked his jaw slightly against the pain he had caused himself. "If you find her," he muttered, not glancing up, "I'll reward you anything. Anything at all. You could name this castle and all its belongings, and I would give it to you if she was in my arms again."

"Ah, Master…?" Cogsworth nervously raised a finger. "If I might just…?"

"No," came the short interruption. "You may not. Those are my terms." He lifted his gaze, zeroing in on Axel, firm, determined. "Bring her to me, and I will give you anything. You have my word. If this is your living, then I will make it so that you never need to work again. Just bring her to me."

Axel stared for a long moment, brows furrowing slowly. He then nodded shortly. "I can do that." Cogsworth let out a weak sound. Biest closed his eyes, a briefly peaceful looking crossing his face.

"…I should have known," he murmured, at last, on a sigh. "She'll come back to me." He turned his gaze to the red rose in the vase, reaching out, hovering just short of touching it. "This was on my doorstep three days after she left. I don't know where it came from, or who left it there… no roses grow around Hollow Bastion… but it is – my sign. That everything will work out. It was a sign from Belle, wherever she is, that she'll come home." His voice was gruff. "I believe in that now, with you here." Pale eyes met vivid ones, and held. "Please, do all you can. I need her."

Axel's eyes strayed to the rose. "…A sign, huh?" Shaking his head slightly, he muttered, "Jeeze, if only we were all that lucky." He stepped back from the desk, hands in pockets, and inclined his head. "I'll do what I can. Just show me some maps or something, and I'll go to where she last went and start investigating."

Biest grunted, staring at the rose. "Cogsworth will show you. I… have other things to attend to."

As Axel left the room, Biest remained unmoving, gazing endlessly at the rose. His sign.

-x-

Armed with knowledge, several maps, and replenished supplies, Axel set out that afternoon. He saw no reason to wait until morning, unwilling to waste half a day's light simply in order to start with a full day the next. With three weeks between his and Belle's steps touching the same ground, he felt time pinching at his nerves.

He rode Oathkeeper out through the gate on the north side of town, loaded up for several days' travel. They hadn't had long to refresh themselves after the weeks on the road, but Axel supposed grimly that it would have to be enough. One thing was for sure: even if he chose to stay longer in the inn, making certain that they had recovered, he wouldn't gain a wink of sleep that wasn't haunted. He couldn't sit idly by while someone was aching for their loved one. This was his job; he intended to do it.

So with the cooling breezes pushing against his face and through his hair, ruffling his mare's mane and making her snap her tail, they headed down the main road, hard, compacted dirt, Hollow Bastion looming at their backs for nearly thirty minutes before it allowed itself to fade into the distance. Eating was an in-transit affair, the redhead slowing Oathkeeper to an easy walk while he consumed enough to keep him going well into the night, before kicking her carefully back into a canter. They covered ground steadily, Axel's eyes forever flicking up towards the sinking sun, a grim sort of stubbornness settling in place as dusk descended all too soon, swimming around their joined bodies before dipping into darkness. The last faint strains of twilight were brushed from the air, fading like smoke, and soon the horse and rider duo were galloping along the gently curving road swathed in night.

Axel bent low over Oathkeeper, buttoning the top of his coat and hunkering down for the long ride ahead, dry hands gripping the reins tightly, knees clamped in place. His hair bounced and streamed behind him, the cold wind sweeping it away from his eyes.

The moon ascended, stars stung the sky, and across the landscape, the lone man and beast continued with a relentlessness that both were well-accustomed to by now. Trees flanked them as far as they went, crowding near to the road, silent and docile, easily imagined to be sleeping. Conserving Oathkeeper's energy, Axel alternated their speed at regular intervals, hoping to get as far as possible before needing to let either of them rest. Against his leg, the pack jolted and bumped, a familiar point grinding into his calf, the skin where it constantly knocked hardened by so long of such punishment.

It might not be comfortable, but for the last three years, this had been Axel's life.

At last, he drew the horse back, slowing her gradually over the course of a couple of miles, before guiding her carefully onto the uneven road's-edge and down into the slight dip running alongside it. He dismounted, patting Oathkeeper's neck with weary affection, and loosened the saddle's straps. Leading her into the trees, several meters from the road and a little out of sight, he knotted her long reins around a sturdy branch, leaving her to graze as he unslung his heavy pack from her back. Withdrawing two blankets, he used one to wipe her down of the cooling sweat trickling along her sides, before tossing the other one over her for warmth, every motion so automatic he barely even noticed himself doing it.

The mare dealt with, set up for the night, he flapped out his leather coat over the earth, set up the bulky pack to be his pillow, and slept, wrapped in an extra shirt for warmth.

Partway towards dawn, he heard Roxas speaking.

Green eyes snapped open, every molecule of his body and mind instantly aware, heart seeming to hesitate before pounding with an intensity that was dizzying. Roxas! The name hovered on the tip of his tongue, a cold sweat he hadn't felt developing trickling down his temples. His every muscle was rigid, frozen in place, as he stopped everything and listened, listened for the sound of a male, light voice curled sarcastically.

He had… heard it so clearly, just moments before. Heard it as if Roxas was there, just beyond the next row of trees, dealing with some idiot or another – the murmur of his voice had coiled in Axel's blank dreams and jolted him to consciousness. It hadn't been part of the dream, it had woken him from it!

Before he could tell himself he was being moronic, Axel was up on his feet, trailing the second shirt from one arm and its messily tucked-in section at his pants as he ran. He heard Oathkeeper skitter, startled by the sudden crash of motion in an otherwise still slumber, but paid no mind to the horse, plummeting through the trees, over to where he was so sure the voice had come from.

Unable to keep the desperate, "Roxas!" from bursting from his lips, he staggered to a stop, gaze darting frantically, twisting in a crunching circle over forest debris, searching for his lost one. Sucking in a breath, he spat flecks as he roared again, "Roxas?!" Chest heaving, fraught need rolling from every pore across every inch of his body, he waited, and waited, for the answer than didn't come, and wouldn't.

Good sense intervened only at the slowest pace, as way in the distance, the slightest hint of sun appeared at the horizon. Axel gradually became aware of the cold wracking his flesh, making him shiver violently, teeth chattering; of the emptiness of his surroundings, of the sounds of Oathkeeper behind him a ways, grazing again.

His eyes slipped shut. Drawing a long, agonised breath, features creasing as he silently berated himself, Axel finished it off with a whispered, "Idiot!" He wiped a hand roughly up the side of his face, smearing dirt unknowingly, dragging it through his hair as he battled his distress.

It had been… the first time in three years since he'd heard Roxas' voice.

Three years.

And Biest was losing his mind after only three weeks.

"Ugh." Axel briefly clamped his hands against his forehead, chasing away the torment. This was – no time to be giving in to despair. There was no time for it. Ever.

He sniffed harshly, regathering his wits and pounding them into something roughly human-shaped, before finally lifting his head, casting one last look around at the trees. They were as silent as ever, the only noise they ever made created by the wind brushing through their leaves, pushing their boughs like they were instruments to be played with.

…But Roxas wasn't going to just be waiting for him on the side of some road.

As the sun crept high enough to awaken crowing roosters across the countryside, Axel was back in motion, what little food he had forced into himself for energy's sake sitting uneasily, like a stone inside his gut. Oathkeeper all but flew with the speed that the redhead kept her at, for as long as she could maintain it. Almost all of him knew he was wasting her reserves, that she'd need a rest later on when they could otherwise have kept travelling, but the little part that didn't care just wanted to outrun the stirring memories in his mind. He couldn't let this overwhelm him. Not yet. Not after so long of doing so well.

By mid-morning, Axel was forced to slow the mare to a walk, her sides heaving, mane damp with perspiration. Frustrated, but knowing it was his own doing, he allowed her to recover from the elongated gallop, using the time to pull out the maps Biest's menservants had given him and studying them anew. It wouldn't be long before they had to turn off into the woods, and follow the trail through to the other side, towards the town that had held the 'Land of Dragons' festival that Biest's wife's old man had been heading for with his invention.

Tracing the small line with one finger, Axel waited until Oathkeeper had sufficiently regained her breath, then encouraged her into a slow canter until they reached the turnoff. They passed into the thickness of trees, the path somewhat more overgrown than the redhead had imagined it would be for a vital connection through the vast sprawl of forestation. However, with Hollow Bastion emptying as rapidly as it was, he supposed there was less and less reason for people to be travelling it, from either direction.

Folding the maps away safely, Axel turned his attention to the new road as they curved further and further away from the main one, keeping an eye out for any obstructions, steering the mare along the clearest segments, their pace steady. This was the way that both Belle and her father had travelled some weeks before. Axel studied the dirt surface, finding faint remains of the wheel-tracks from when the old man had gone through. He had been allowed to inspect the damaged remains of the cart, complete with the still-intact machine he had built sitting bulkily inside it. Its ragged state had been a cause for celebration in Axel, albeit silently and hidden from watching eyes – fragmented wood and torn canvas meant that evidence might have been left behind. Even if it was from when the horse had been alone, it would, in its best-case scenario, provide a metaphorical arrow for him to follow.

The heavy hoof-marks of Belle's horse were harder to make out, but distinctively large enough for him to recognise, pressed into the road's surface and fading fast with the days. He could only hope this meant that the woman was alive somewhere, lost perhaps, maybe even over at the town far on the other side with no way to get back. That option seemed a little much to hope for, but Axel had to consider every possibility to be explored.

The day progressed, with Axel following the road, eyes straining to make out the marks left behind by its previous traversers. The further in he got, however, the fainter they became, his lips thinning steadily. As morning turned to afternoon, and then beyond, he gradually lost all sight of the tracks. They didn't veer off at any point, they didn't stop – they merely faded away. Frustration welled within him, filling his chest with an irritable heat, his gaze now completely focused downward, scouring the earth of the road and the surrounding vegetation as he all but stood in his stirrups to get a proper view.

When Oathkeeper drew to a stop, completely of her own volition, the man jolted forward, having to clutch at her to keep his balance, head jerking up, a scowl of displeased confusion in place. The forest rustled and sighed around them, filled with the noises of birds and other docile wildlife that had been thus far drowned out by the constant clopping of hooves. As his widening eyes fell upon what had forced his horse to cease, Axel sank slowly back into the saddle, staring.

They had reached a fork in the road.

"What the…?" Features creasing with bewilderment, the redhead instantly dug a hand into the travelling pack and yanked out the maps he had been given on the region, shuffling through them sharply until he found the one detailing the known forest area. Gaze darting over the worn paper, he sought out their position, looked for the split he hadn't known was coming... only to find that it turned out that the reason he hadn't known about the fork, was because – it wasn't on the map.

"Oh, you have got to be kidding me," he muttered, brow furrowing as he again sorted through the collection of maps, in case he was just looking at the wrong one. But no – this was definitely the right map, the right forest. No one had bothered to inform him there was going to be a selection anywhere along it, that was all. Raising his eyes hesitantly, he stared at the road-sign, a tall wooden creation whose faces had been so badly worn that the names on the arrows didn't register anymore. Perfect.

Perhaps… the fork wasn't on the map because both directions ultimately led to the same destination? Did people do that with mapmaking? He turned his puzzled attention back to the paper in one hand, raising his other to push through the spikes of his hair in a gesture of helplessness. "…How old is this thing, anyway?" he wondered aloud, turning it over in search of a date, finding nothing to indicate that it was showing him the forest from the eyes of pioneers a century ago.

Frowning, he studied the maps one last time, before folding them up and stowing them safely away once more. Slouching in the saddle, Oathkeeper's reins in hand, he regarded the split roads with dissatisfaction. So, it was up to him to make the choice, then. One would definitely theoretically lead to the other side of the forest within a couple days, while the other…?

Trying to turn the decision into a logical affair, he stood in the stirrups again, holding the mare steady so that any last, lingering little traces of Belle's or her father's presences wouldn't be instantly erased by her shuffling, struggling in the late-noon light to find some direction. He stared anxiously down at the road, vision virtually blurring with the last-ditch effort of finding some trace to follow. Several minutes passed, craned over Oathkeeper's neck, dejectedly hanging on to the saddle, before finally conceding defeat. He sat with a heavy sigh, regathering the reins and regarding the split roads with determination, now. He had to pick one, completely blindly. So which one felt more like the type an old man and a young woman would choose?

Option one: the right. A meandering road lined with trees and littered with fallen leaves, lit through the foliage by the warm afternoon sun. The way looked easy enough, though broken slightly by the occasional raised root. It looked comfortably traversable, however, for a horse and cart.

Option two: the left. Axel's eyes narrowed as he focused on it properly for the first time, a slow frown dragging at his face as he absorbed the sight; the darkness of it, the way the air seemed colder from that area; the fact that somehow, in that direction… the world seemed to turn grey. That path was also broken by tree-roots, but the way looked clear enough. However… Axel didn't know exactly what it was about it, but – he didn't… like the left-hand road.

Oathkeeper didn't, either. As he unconsciously tugged her head in that direction, she anxiously pulled back the other way, making him blink, glancing down. He untangled a hand from the reins and carefully petted her neck. "Yeah," he said, sounding uneasy. "Me, too, Oathie. Okay. Hup." He got her going again, the pair heading into the lighter, right-hand side of the fork. Axel's gaze lingered on the sign as they passed, but he could make nothing out of the weather-worn scraps. With a sigh, he nudged the mare into a swift trot, and they continued along what would hopefully turn out to be the correct path.

For perhaps an hour, they followed the tree line, the golden light that filtered through the canopy growing richer, more intense as the sun began turning the sky a briefly blazing palette of colour. Axel began darting glances upward, calculating how much daylight remained before he and Oathkeeper would once again be forging their way through darkness. He tapped her with a heel, letting out a small, urging grunt, and her pace increased. He didn't think he could force either of them through another night's worth of travel, with only a few hours sleep between the weaker hours of morning and dawn's break; thus, as much distance needed to be covered before the point of stopping as possible. He wanted to reach the other side of the forest by the third day, reach the town on the fourth, and begin investigating Belle from there.

The lower the sun dipped, the chillier the wind blew, coming in from a right-hand angle and sending Axel's coat gusting to the side as Oathkeeper galloped on. He blinked through it, as he always did, by now almost unbothered when it made his eyes water. After so long of such treatment, he was used to it. His eyes had – hardened? Toughened? Something. Perhaps he was just less of a pushover than he had been in the early days, when he had ridden for hours with his face tucked in against the mare's neck to shield himself from the endless slipstream.

Then, without warning, the wind suddenly stopped… and changed direction.

Axel gasped and choked as an icy blast came in unexpected from the left, sweeping up a storm of dead and dying leaves that swept past in a flurry. Raising an arm, he wiped his face with his wrist and biceps, dislodging the clinging particles, rubbing them frantically from his eyes as they sought to blind him. He inhaled several grits of dirt and patches of leaf, coughing sharply as they stuck in his throat. Not pausing even for a breath, the breeze continued, bitter and invasive, brushing through his clothing as if it wasn't there, shoving at his hair, clutching at his chest, and… it was just like the wind that had blown in Hollow Bastion the night before last.

Bewildered by the force of it, Axel quickly reined Oathkeeper in, the horse snorting, stamping at the ground. They halted abruptly, though the mare shifted constantly, obviously unhappy at being stationary, rearing slightly with a distressed murmur. "Hey, hey," Axel soothed instantly, reaching down to pat her reassuringly. "Relax. It's just a little – windstorm. Ease up, Oathie."

Saying so was easy enough to do, but Axel was uneasy. He sat upright, posture stiff, glancing around uncertainly as he fastened his top buttons again. Dusk was falling through the forest, as if heralded by the stray gust, and the redhead almost wished he had an oil lantern with him, to light, and shut away, and see if the flame flicked sideways the way they all had in Hollow Bastion.

Why was Hollow Bastion afraid of the dark? Why hadn't he asked at the time?

It was at this point that the first howls became audible, drifting from a distance, an ululating, haunting song of communication that reminded him sharply of the dirge Cid had farewelled him with. Axel's countenance became swiftly grim. "Wolves." He loosened the reins a little, tightened his grip, uttered a short, sharp, "Hup!" and got Oathkeeper into motion.

More than willing to be moving again, the mare broke into a canter, Axel's gaze fixed ahead. With any luck, the beasts wouldn't show any interest in them, but he wanted to get the horse out of scent's range, just in case. If they were hungry enough, they would come for her.

The air rushed past chillingly, the horse's hooves pounding the earth, Axel drawing his body down to lower resistance, settling himself in for a longer ride than expected. At least, he supposed tiredly, they would get more ground covered this way. It wasn't fun, but it had its benefits.

The howls, when they came again, were closer, striking a coldness in the redhead's chest. Oathkeeper sped up without prompting, her strides lengthening, Axel flattening himself along her solid form. They streaked along the dirt road, the sun a kiss on the horizon and shrinking. The man gasped as, frighteningly close now, another bay sounded through the thickening dimness. His jaw clenched, heels digging into Oathkeeper's sides, face getting number by the minute. It wasn't long before he heard the crashing in the forest that signified the hunt – the damned wind had blown the horse's scent right to their noses.

"Oath, hup," he called tersely, giving her an extra kick for emphasis, pushing her into a full gallop, nothing held back. She gave accordingly, fear pulsing in every step, Axel clutching determinedly as the ground vanished into a blur beneath them. Oathkeeper launched herself across the countryside, darkness swallowing the forest, descending upon the road and stealing whatever vague advantage they might have had. Axel couldn't have cursed his luck more. Feeling gravity tugging at his superfluous weight on the horse's back, he dug his fingers under the saddle, knees gripping her sides, praying that, whatever happened, he would just be able to hang onto her.

Barks and snarls became audible, the vegetation shaking, and moments later, the hounds lunged out onto the road, several of them snapping at the mare's heels. Her panicked pace burst even faster, panting breaths steaming the air as the beasts sprinted alongside. Axel shouted wordlessly at them, answering their barks savagely, trying to dissuade them with the presence of a human in the proceedings. It didn't work – Oathkeeper let out a wild scream as teeth grazed her leg, a sharp yelp from behind suggesting that a moving meal wasn't the most painless affair. All this proved to do was excite the wolves further. In the horse's terrified voice, they heard dinner calling. Had wolves always been this aggressive?

Oathkeeper's steps went sharply unsteady, the horse no longer keeping a straight line, instead jolting helter-skelter along the road, fast enough to fall and kill them both along with several of the hounds if she lost her footing for even a split-second of a moment. Her whinnies were high, piercing, Axel gripping for dear life against the chaotic instability, suddenly petrified that he might not have tightened the saddle's straps properly, one hand winding through her mane desperately.

Sensing victory close at hand, the wolves started letting out shrill yips and leaping at her, snapping their steel-trap jaws teasingly, herding her between them, ready to pounce the second she crashed and tear into her throat. Panicking, Axel cried, "Come on, sweetheart!" He threw a frantic glance down at the attackers, a flash of something darker catching his eye, a blaze of ebony that blinked into and out of existence in a heartbeat. His bewildered exclamation was cut off as Oathkeeper suddenly reared back onto two legs, front hooves kicking with a frightened shriek as, directly in front of them, yet more hounds darted out from the shadowy trees, snarling and biting.

Axel, caught unawares, was flung away from her neck, maintaining his seat only barely, legs just about plastered to her sides as they instinctively clamped in place, one arm windmilling, reins whipping. As she landed, jolting him forward, he slammed his fingers back under the saddle, so that they would snap before they came loose, and only just in time – Oathkeeper flung herself up a second time, almost seeming to dance as she skittered in a half-circle, away from the threat…

…and in that moment, Axel caught sight of the newcomers, the wolves that had cut in front and sliced off her escape route… and, among them, he saw the ebony again, not just a flash, not just a glimpse, but a look… a clear view of black-as-pitch, sharp-clawed, hunched, yellow-eyed nothings running with the pack, hunting with them, putting that bloodthirsty glint in their eyes…

It only lasted for as long as Oathkeeper was rearing, but that moment of striking realisation felt like a thousand eternities.

Shadows.

Monsters.

Cid from the tavern had been right.

The horse's hooves smashed to the ground, Axel's feet bouncing from the stirrups, and as the wolves gathered en masse to attack, she bolted, crashing through the trees and away from the road. The hounds howled, deprived of their swift kill, and plunged in after her.

Axel had thought he was holding tight before, had thought his life was in danger, but nothing compared to this, nothing compared to clinging to the saddle with his hands, to the horse's sides with his knees, and nothing else but his own strength and wild desperation keeping him from slamming back with gravity, back onto the ground, back into the jaws of the murderous beasts. He hung from Oathkeeper, feeling branches whip and tear at his head and clothing, feeling the straps of the heavy pack finally snap and fall away, the yelps of the wolves that it hit sending shock after shock through his heart.

Freed of the extra weight, Oathkeeper was allowed one last desperate bid for freedom. She ran, and ran, and one by one, the wolves fell behind. She reached the edge of their territory, fled beyond their reaches, and only long after their calls had faded from the air did she stop, deep within the grey boundaries of the left-hand fork of the forest.

-x-

Consciousness, Axel had discovered somewhere along the way, was not a luxury. Unconsciousness, like so very many luxuries in life, was proving to be a bitch to come by, as sorely desired as it was. He was cut, he was bruised, he was aching, he was numb, he was bleeding from his nose, but still he hung from Oathkeeper's back, fingers loosely gripping the reins, face pressed against her mane.

The mare meandered idly, picking through the trees, exhausted but still too agitated to remain in one place. Axel, for his part, made no move to correct her, not even able, at this moment, to lift himself from the saddle. It was about… midnight, or thereabouts. Hours of this had passed. The sick scent of salt followed the pair, the creeping aroma of blood, both whipped and slammed with branches along the way, numerous grids of deep red scratches latticing Axel's exposed hands, neck and face, Oathkeeper's flanks, ears and nose. It was a wonder they hadn't drawn a new pack of beasts to tear them limb from limb, trailing this much life's odour – it would have been an easy task, too. Neither man nor mare had any fight left.

Eventually, the horse couldn't continue. Axel's flickering eyelids drooped, then lifted, as Oathkeeper lowered her head and began grazing half-heartedly. Realising that all motion had ceased, other than the occasional step towards greener grass, the redhead forced his mind closer to alertness. Fingers digging into the mare's brown coat, he gathered the dwindled strength in each limb and pushed, shakily levering himself up from her skin, shifting a hand down to grip the saddle for steadiness as he painstakingly straightened.

Drawing a deep, hoarse breath, feeling like it was the first one he'd taken all night, he squinted slowly at their surroundings, dismay taking its time to filter through the dazed haze fogging his thoughts. Everything… looked completely unfamiliar. There was no… no road, no path, no – line of destruction from Oathkeeper's passage. She had calmed to walking hours ago, and had left the vegetation undisturbed with her careful, limping steps. Green irises disappeared gradually from view, despair trickling cold through Axel's veins. He tipped back his head, inhaled deeply again, eyebrows knitting together, turning up.

They were lost.

His tongue came out, dampening dry lips, touching the bite-marks he'd unknowingly given himself during the chase. He let out a heavy sigh, opening his eyes and gazing at the sky, the base of his skull resting heavily against his neck. "God… damn," he whispered, his first audible words of the night. Steeling himself against the pain, he lowered his chin stiffly, curled his fingers over the saddle, wincing at the slices his tight grip had caused across their soft bases, and swung himself down to the forest floor.

He crumpled, instantly; hit the ground with a voiceless breath, startling Oathkeeper into skittering nervously away several feet. He found himself looking at the sky again, through a break in the trees, one leg twisted nervelessly beneath him. For a while, he stayed there, breaths puffing into the cold air, listening to the gentle rustling of Oathkeeper's grazing.

At last, feeling sensation begin to throb through his body again, Axel struggled slowly up to sitting, clutching handfuls of grass and dirt to support him, palms pressing heavily into the earth. Dizzy, but growing gradually more alert, he glanced over to where the mare was eating. Her sides were shuddering slightly, a constant tremble caused by overexertion and stress.

Axel… could relate.

"Oathkeeper." His voice was soft, the mare's head raising instantly, a tense look about her despite the fatigue. He clicked his fingers several times, letting out some gentle noises. "It's okay, sweetheart." Letting out a long, low groan, he eased around onto all fours, and painfully pressed against his thighs, staggering up onto his feet. The horse stepped away uneasily, Axel scraping back the hanks of hair that hung around his face, swaying unsteadily for a moment, feet shifting. Then slowly, he held out a hand, approaching her. "It's okay. I'm here. You know me, right?" She remained more or less still as he reached her, his fingers touching her chilled flank. She stilled as his hand pressed against her, staying there for a moment before travelling over to rub her neck. He felt her relax slightly under the familiar contact, the shuddering easing somewhat. He sighed. "What have we got ourselves into, Oathie?"

Hands running gently back and forth over her dirty coat, he gave their surroundings another firm inspection, wondering how in the world they were going to get themselves out of it. Even with the maps, had the pack not gone crashing to the ground so many miles and hours back, he didn't know how well he'd do at navigating them back to where they belonged. This was an entire forest. Of course, it had a beginning, it had an end, it even had a road running through it – but this meant nothing if Axel was going to be leading his horse in circles for the next week.

He supposed, with a low exhalation, that the most important thing for now was making sure neither of them was going to drop dead from infection. Oathkeeper had been bitten – that would need attending to, along with her numerous other minor injuries, not the least of which was a long, shallow burn from where the leather strap of the pack had been torn across her skin.

He himself had his own bloodied sections to deal with – all he could smell and taste was copper, a dry river painting half his lower face crimson, from where he had slammed nose-first into Oathkeeper's bobbing neck at some point during the dash… but his woes could wait. She didn't understand the pain; he needed to make it go away, needed to keep her safe. One thing was for sure – if she got sick, he wouldn't be getting anywhere in a hurry. She was his best hope of a swift return to civilisation.

The only problem was, with the pack gone, he had nothing to wipe her down with, and no water with which to do it. Not only that… but he was just about dead on his feet. The thought of going picking about in this place in the pitch black like this, pricked only by the stars and no moon whatsoever, hunting for fresh water to bathe both their wounds, was nearly enough to make him swoon. His mind was in it, his heart was even weakly involved and insistent, but his body, oh, it just wasn't going to work right now.

Guiltily, he supposed that since Oathkeeper was still eating like this, she couldn't be too badly traumatised at this present moment… and she was taking in fluid from the grass, which was more than could be said for him… She'd survive the night, right? There was no sound to be heard of the wolves, or… other things.

As Axel's thought turned fearfully to the black creatures with the yellow eyes, he couldn't suppress a shudder, returning his nervous gaze to the blank darkness with new appreciation for what could be lying within. …Had he really seen them? It hadn't just been – the panic? The madness of the moment, his mind playing tricks on him, taking the rheumy eyes of the hounds and mingling them with the pooling shadows of dusk to create nightmares to flee from? Was it – at all possible that he had been mistaken?

His hands moving uncertainly to Oathkeeper's reins, he clutched them tightly, drawing them up near his throat and peering around blindly. He attuned his hearing to the night, straining to hear a sign that any things might be out there… All that met his ears was the gentle whisper of the trees, a distantly hooting owl holding deadly court over the woodland prey. There didn't seem to be anything out of the ordinary, at the very least. He could sense nothing foul on the air, nothing to suggest that either he or his mare were in immediate danger. And, if monsters were lurking – surely one of them would notice? Even if he was stupidly dense enough to remain oblivious, wouldn't Oathkeeper know? Weren't animals meant to be good at that sort of thing?

He blinked over at the mare. Both times the fey wind had blown, she had reacted negatively. Considering the fact that she was fine right now, aside from the obvious… that was good, right? That was hopeful. That suggested a monster-free environment. And… he was so tired, after all.

Steps heavy, Axel tugged carefully on the reins, leading Oathkeeper to a nearby tree, picking a sturdy branch and tying the long leather strips firmly around it, a knot that would be easy to undo in a hurry. He paused to briefly curl his arms over her neck, all but hanging from her in exhaustion, his attempt at comforting her merely making her sink slightly under his weight.

At last, he slid away, chose a position on the ground where the horse wouldn't be able to accidentally step on him, and simply lay down. His knees drew up towards his chest, arms wrapped around them stiffly, eyes slipping shut with a low sigh as he nestled his head awkwardly in against his upper arm. Curled up like a child during a storm, Axel slept.

-x-

Roses. Axel could smell them on the air, a lingering scent that hung everywhere at once. It was like a blanket hovering across the earth, virtually a tangible force, yet somehow not overpowering. Just – ever-present. A sickly-sweet that usually belonged to death, but for some reason didn't repulse in this happenstance. It was inhaled, exhaled, breathed into lungs and bloodstream and passed through organs and muscle… it infused existence.

The world was grey. Purely grey. There was no colour to be had, nothing to suggest life except for the heady stench of the blooms, wherever they may be. Axel walked, feet steady but mind confused, lost in the middle of nowhere. He was surrounded by walls of stone, solid and tall, a lone path threading through them, twisting this way and that, branching off in several directions at once, yet leading inevitably to one single destination.

Axel didn't know where he was going, but only that he had to continue. If he stopped, he would remain lost. Each step seemed to echo with a shadow of itself, a smeared blur following his motions like an afterthought, like his spirit was trailing him one step behind, struggling to catch up with flesh that refused to wait. His hand raised, fingertips longing to scrape along the cold stone of the nearest wall, but as he touched it, the grey rippled, darkened, black smudges left behind like ash, like burns, his eyes not noticing the reaction as he kept on with his stilted journey.

The further in he got, following this puzzling jumble of paths, the more he became aware of a buzzing in the background, a distant hum that undulated with a familiarity that made him frown. His pace hesitated, then increased a little, each corner he rounded now accompanied by curiosity. The hum dipped and rose, like some kind of muffled horn playing a complicated tune, but the longer Axel walked, the clearer it became. He started being able to make out edges to it, the noise less fuzzy and more pronounced.

The recognition that tickled his mind grew sharper as its volume increased with the slow steadiness that belonged to an approach, as if the redhead were pushing through veils to get to its source, closer and closer.

Then, he heard it laugh. The humming buzz – it laughed, an easy sound, and Axel suddenly realised exactly what it was.

"…Roxas," he whispered, heart picking up speed. His legs were quick to follow; he broke into a jog, head twisting this way and that as he passed each turnoff, breathing hard but inaudibly, his feet barely whispering against the earth as they slammed into it, as if the only sound allowed to exist was that voice.

Only Roxas.

He could feel himself getting nearer, steps melting into a run before he even knew what he was doing, a frantic, frenzied, misguided sprint as he desperately sought the foundation of it all. Roxas' voice grew more distinct the faster he went, no longer distant but close, beyond just several more walls, and all Axel had to do was follow the paths until he found him.

He was here, he was somewhere nearby!

He gasped the blond's name, over and over, a frightened mantra that burned in his chest and spurred him on, lest the voice suddenly cease and he find himself alone again. As he reached a cross-roads, he paused indecisively, turning from one to the other, unable, in that crucial moment, to choose a direction.

Similarly, the voice paused – there was silence. Axel's head came up, agony in his eyes as he exploded a distressed breath out, terror clutching his heart. He had hesitated! Roxas was gone?!

Then, alert and startled, he heard – "Axel?"

-x-

Green eyes snapped open. "Roxas!" Axel's voice hung for a moment, then faded from the air flatly. The sound of his own name being exclaimed reverberated in his head, as if he could turn his face and see the blond several meters away, staring wide-eyed from beside a tree. He gave in to temptation, did just that, sitting up and looking around frantically, his mind trying to argue that it wasn't going to happen, while his heart kept calling Roxas' name.

But the only other being in the area was Oathkeeper.

Morning had come. Dew had scattered across the forest, clinging to blades of grass and stiff leaves, trickling and dripping from the canopy. It ran down his coat in rivulets, warded off by the hard leather surface, though some dampness had still managed to seep into his underclothing. He was cold, a fact made all the more bitter by the chilly mist that drifted and floated thickly through the trees. It turned the world darker, colourless, the fair sky above barely piercing it except to somehow emphasise the gloom.

Axel's fingers sank into the damp soil, his chin dropping to his chest, dispirited. Twice now… He had heard Roxas' voice twice, and was no closer to finding him now than he ever had been. What was it about searching for Biest's wife that reminded his subconscious so achingly of his own experience? He couldn't… handle it. Couldn't handle the tease of it.

For a while, he clutched his head, and focused on breathing. Oathkeeper stood nearby, not grazing for once, just observing the scenery with her placid, dark eyes, walking the length of her reins peacefully. She had, it would seem, recovered sufficiently from the night before. It was amazing what a night's sleep could do, the strength that daylight could bring… and just a shame that Axel couldn't partake in it.

He felt… weak. Bloodless, boneless, lifeless, with breaths puffing in and out of him for the sake of convenience. With a soft grunt, he stood, legs shaking, muscles like jelly, solidifying only slowly. Everything hurt – every inch of every limb. It didn't matter how many years he'd been riding around the countryside, his body just hadn't been prepared for the punishment of a high-speed marathon sans stirrups. He was like some kind of shambling marionette, the way he moved about, hands brushing away the dirt and dew from his clothing, his long, spiked hair.

When he came up alongside Oathkeeper, he found that, despite her calm behaviour, she was freezing. His hands lay flat against her, the ice of her flesh a shock. He moved up to stroke her nose, scratching at her ears, worriedly murmuring, "It's okay, girl. We'll get you cleaned up and… dried off, somehow. You'll warm up when the sun gets higher…" He craned his neck back to gaze upward, silently urging the blue sky to hurry and get hot. She was so startlingly cold.

Thoughts of Roxas shivered and dulled as he set to work scraping the dew from the horse's skin, removing the saddle for the first time since the previous morning and using the outside of his coat to wipe her off as best as he could, ridding her of that lingering layer of chill, shivering all the while. He flapped the coat out when he was done, shaking off as much of the fluid as possible, before dragging it back on, shuddering at the smell and feel. "Hate the cold," he hissed, arms held rigidly by his sides. "I hate it, hate it, hate it."

He glanced around, everything looking identical, even in daylight, and hideously alien. He didn't even know the area enough to begin to know which direction to head in – should he go with the land, or against it? Into the sun, or away? With a sigh, wrapping his arms limply around his ribs, he gazed upward, gauging the position of the burning, uselessly distant orb. If it had been setting at his front on the main road out of Hollow Bastion, and at his right when he was cutting through the forest, then the best he could do was return to travelling in that direction and hope they came out relatively close to a town. Who knew? Maybe he'd even find himself in the one Belle's old man had been heading for, since it was closest to the woods' edge.

He slipped the saddle back onto Oathkeeper, tightening all its straps meticulously, making sure nothing was loose, anywhere, in case they ended up in a similar situation again. Their first aim: fresh water. If they could drink, and clean themselves off properly, getting the dirt out of any and all injuries so neither one died before getting back to humanity, then they would be off to a good start. After that, the focus could be entirely on getting out of this place, and then attempting to continue the investigation. After all, it wasn't pleasant, any of this, but Axel had been lost before – it didn't automatically warrant an end to his search, by any means. Belle was still missing, and if anything had happened to her like what happened to him, then he had a new sympathy for the lost woman. He couldn't give this up; Biest was still waiting, back in his gloomy trap of a castle, for Axel to complete what he had set out to do.

Climbing up onto the horse's back was an ordeal entirely of its own, muscles that wanted nothing more than to contract and stay contracted being forced to stretch and work, complaining viciously as Axel swung himself up with a sharp wince. "Oh, man," he groaned, pained. Then, shrugging it off with supreme, breathless effort, he tapped the mare's ribs and hoarsely commanded, "Hup, Oathie. Let's get going."

The mare obediently set off at a cautious trot, Axel keeping an eye out for any obstructions in their path. With the sun rising at one elbow, he briefly prayed to whoever might be idly listening that they'd be safe again, soon enough.