The Cold Heart of It
It wasn't too many hours that passed before Axel found himself wishing that the sun would hurry the hell up and start setting all over again. In stark contrast to the frigidness of the early morning, the period right before noon was a sultry sauna of heat and evaporated mist. The thick, leafy canopy prevented the dense air from escaping towards the sky, trapping it down among the trunks and boughs. Axel, perched on top of Oathkeeper as he was, was treated to a lofty enough position to virtually be swimming through it, his breaths coming in shallow gasps between parted lips. His nose was useless, for the time being, and in enough pain to be considered broken. His entire face radiated with it, throbbing in time with his heartbeat as the sun filtered through the treetops and seared the last of the dew away.
So far, water had remained out of reach. Wherever all these trees and plants were getting life from, it had to be an underground source of some kind – despite his best efforts, Axel hadn't even been able to find a puddle. How the hell was he expecting to be able to track down mobile, unpredictable human beings for a profession if he couldn't even successfully seek a freaking pond? He had followed the land, had gone towards the colder patches of air instinctively, had used the lusher vegetation as his guide, and still, nothing with which to clean himself, or even to drink.
All his supplies were long gone with the pack, including the water – meaning that he was thirsty. His entire mouth was parched, prickling, dry from the intense heat. The hunger, he could deal with – a big 'so what' with that one, he'd been hungry before in his life and God only knew he would be again, but water, water was vital. He was sweating from every pore in his body, and he hadn't had a sip to drink since the previous afternoon. Fluids needed replacing, asap. His stomach hurt from it.
His coat peeled off and draped over the back of the saddle, white shirt sticking to his skin, the redhead had a hand pressed against his belly, the other gripping the reins and directing Oathkeeper from time to time, head sinking from the oppressive heat but his eyes remaining as glittery-alert as ever as he navigated them through the wild. At least they hadn't encountered anymore wolves, or – anything else. The way had been clear of danger, only the smaller, regular forest creatures moving about, who took less exception to Oathkeeper wandering their midst than if it had been Axel alone.
However, despite this apparent show of harmlessness the woods were giving – he couldn't help but feel that things… weren't entirely right.
Here was the deal: Axel had never claimed to be the smartest guy around. He wasn't, even when he was being smart. That was something Roxas had always pointed out to him, tactful little angel that he'd been. Axel wasn't dumb, but his brain just didn't – swing that way. However – his saving grace came in the form of instinct. He might not have swallowed and regurgitated books on a regular basis, but his instincts were second to none, which was what had made him as good as he was both at tending the fires back when he'd been an apprentice, and with hunting people down for whatever reason he was hired to these days.
He had learned, over the years, to listen carefully to this keen sense of what was going on beyond what his eyes and ears could tell, and right now, it whispered in his ear that things were off-kilter. The world had been thrown askew, and his head had tilted accordingly to match it – this was what his gut told him. Just because everything looked normal, didn't mean it was suddenly straight again. Nothing had been righted – the slant was still there.
This was why, even though their surroundings appeared to be normal… Axel couldn't just daze out like he so badly wanted to. He was hot as hell, little pinpricks of light swimming at the edges of his vision, and sick from dehydration – but he wasn't disconnecting yet. His edgy nerves wouldn't allow it. Every minute that passed, his gaze was scanning the trees, mind wary.
However, if he didn't find something to drink and cool off in, soon, he was liable to pass out. Oathkeeper seemed to agree; letting her more or less lead herself, she started taking them into darker territory, the canopy thicker. He had been avoiding those places, both consciously and subconsciously – the tilt was worse there. He had been shying away from them, but Oathkeeper was overriding him as he grew weaker.
He had to admit, as they passed through the deeper shadow, that it was cooler here. Instead of serving as a trap for the heat, the thickness had been a shield against the sun's rays getting in in the first place. It was easier to draw breath, the hovering drowsiness receding the slightest amount from the thick feeling in his head. The ground grew steadily steeper, the mare's steps becoming more cautious the lower they descended. Axel sat taller, brushing several crimson spikes from his eyes, frowning as he glanced around. The forest was quieter in this section; fewer animals scuttled its floor openly, though he could hear the occasional one rustling through the bushes out of sight. One could almost consider it peaceful… Almost, but not – quite.
Gradually, Axel became aware of a new scent lacing the air, a cool dampness that hadn't existed back in the sunnier parts except for when the mist had been thick on the ground. It was the smell of mildew, the slow rot of drowning vegetation – a nearby body of water consuming the land.
With new life, Axel kicked Oathkeeper into a swift trot, seeking the source eagerly – only to have the horse suddenly slam to an abrupt halt, nearly sending him face-first straight into her neck again. He caught himself at the last second, eyes a bare inch away from her russet, sweat-cooled coat. He blinked once, twice, pushed himself up, looking around sharply, but there seemed to be no obvious reason for the mare's decisive stop. Growing angry, he demanded, "Oathkeeper, what the hell? What's got into you?" He flicked a heel up into her flank, but met only obstinacy. "Come on, girl, hup, now!" When she still didn't move, he lifted his head, scowling into their surroundings, eyes and ears open for anything out of the ordinary. She wasn't acting spooked, though – she just… refused to move.
With an aggravated sigh, Axel attempted again, pulling her to one side and tapping her swiftly with his foot. This time, she obeyed, getting going – but not in the right direction. She went rapidly the way that he had tugged, an almost sideways skitter, hooves sending up dead leaves and dust as they scraped the ground without actually going forward. He pulled to her a frustrated stop again. "No, damn it," he scolded, "we're going that way, stupid horse." As he tried to force her to continue, she started getting distressed, tossing her head and grunting anxiously. When he stopped, bewildered, she calmed straight back down again.
He huffed, gathered up the reins, and swung down from the saddle. Stretching his legs out with a measure of relief, he went around to gaze into one large, gentle eye, stroking her nose, saying emphatically, "There's water down there, girl. I know you're just as thirsty as I am, grass or no grass." He switched to soothing, wheedling. "Come on, Oathie, don't you want a drink?" Giving her bridle a soft tug, he backed up a step, and hesitantly, she followed. Smiling now, making sweet noises and continuing to pat her, Axel took another step, and another, the crunch of Oathkeeper's hooves sounding out after each one.
Then, she stopped again, and pulled back so hard that Axel just about fell into her. He steadied his feet, straightened and glared, the expression fading after several moments into weariness. He let out a sigh. "So who's stupider?" he mumbled. "The horse who won't move, or the idiot trying to make her?" Groaning quietly, he rubbed a hand over his forehead, avoiding his throbbing nose, and squinted at the mare. "…Fine. You can stay here, then." He stepped past her, tugging gently on the bridle, and this time, she followed without compunction, placidly allowing herself to be led over into a patch of light. He tied her up, giving an experimental tug to make sure she wasn't going to come loose.
Exhaling heavily, he patted her for a minute, before grabbing his coat and stepping away. Leaving her to graze, he turned, heading back into the shadows, beyond where Oathkeeper wouldn't go.
Boots sinking into the leaf-strewn earth, Axel tugged his arms through the sleeves of the brown leather as he walked, straightening it at his shoulders, flipping back the stiff collar. He threw a look over his shoulder to check on the horse, before hopping down an incline and out of sight, hands going into pockets as he weaved through the slender, pale trees. Inhaling deeply, he took in the chilly scent, eyes darting.
He followed the decline some way before coming to another, steeper drop in the landscape. Curious, cautious, the scent of dampness stronger than ever, Axel edged towards the precipice of the descent, peering down with a frown. Surprise registered on his features, taking his brows briefly up his forehead, before sinking again, the frown deepening. He had found the water, the search was over – but what a thing to find.
It was like stumbling over an oasis in the desert. It was a patch of forest which differed so sharply to everything had had gone through so far, it felt like it had been carved out of an entirely separate landscape altogether and deposited by accident, dropped out of the sky by passing gods... except that, from the looks of it, the forest continued in that fashion from this point on, making it more like – neighbouring kingdoms, completely different, but bordering one another.
For several quiet minutes, Axel let his gaze drink in the anomaly, before slowly beginning once again to move. He shifted down the sheer hill, boots slipping slightly in the leaves, his hands coming up out of his pockets as he spread his arms instinctively for balance, half sliding, half walking down the incline. As the angle increased, the redhead pressed one palm to the dirt, helping to keep himself steady, feeling the muck slide between his fingers, icy cold.
The temperature in general was dropping with every foot, his breaths beginning to puff, startling his eyes wide to watch the steam drift away. He hesitated. Turning to gaze back up the way he'd come, wondering if the sun still burned as brightly up there, further back where the tree coverage wasn't so dense. So few minutes ago, he had been sweating and dizzy from the heat, but now he was having to stave off shivers. It struck him as entirely too sudden contrast… but then, what did he know? Obviously, it wasn't that unusual if it was happening.
He turned back to face his goal, determination hovering in his expression, behind the caution and hint of confusion that dominated. In the end, if the water was clean and fresh, then it didn't matter how much colder it was down here compared to up there. He would breathe ice if need be – he couldn't keep going without first taking care of his most basic needs. And that went for Oathkeeper, too – he was grateful, now, that she had sensed the terrain and not come. She knew her hooves better than he did, and definitely wouldn't have survived the downward clamber unscathed – which just begged the question, how was he going to get her down here? He couldn't very well carry in cupped handfuls of water for her. He would have to seek out a new path, one which was hopefully easier, for both of them. All this intense downhill travel was murder on the thighs.
After many minutes of grunting, sliding, and generally dirtying himself, Axel found himself at last at the bottom. Taking a moment to regain his breath, hands on hips, he focused on the surrounding 'oasis' with wonder bordering on uneasiness. The light down here was dimmer even than it had been up in the shadows with Oathkeeper, the branches fighting to crowd every piece of sky visible.
As for the trees themselves, well… they were – white. Virtually silver, and brittle-looking to go with it. An odd glow seemed to emanate from their rough surfaces, but on closer, wary inspection, Axel found no obvious reason for it. He pressed a hand against the bark of the nearest one, feeling its dry chill, but no residue clung to his palm as he pulled back again. He'd never seen anything like them.
The early-morning mist had lingered here, unable to evaporate like it had in the rest of the forest, forming a grey carpet through which Axel's boots passed like smoke. He cautiously made his way towards the lake around which everything was focused, its surface as still as glass. Its muddy shores made slick noises as he squelched across them, the crowd of trees thinning as he got nearer.
Water. Finally. He had gone too long without any, and the thought of stripping off in the middle of this lonesome place and washing was a welcome one. He looked forward to ridding himself of the blood, the grime, the sweat, the… "Huh?" He paused uncertainly, gazing over at the lake with concern. After a moment's reluctance, he slowly approached the lake's edge, forehead creased with a scowl of puzzlement. Breathing the cold air, he hesitated, then crouched, pressing his fingers carefully into the dark mud for balance. He gazed down into the water, his own reflection looking back worriedly, barely a ripple of motion within it.
Well. This was… different.
The water was black.
Cautiously, the redhead lifted one hand, shook off the muck, and reached out to touch the lake's glassy surface. His fingertip touched icy coldness, sending a wave of disruption through the perfect stillness despite the lightness of the contact. Pulling the finger back out, he rubbed the slickness against his thumb, feeling nothing oily or foreign in the regular water consistency. He next delved in his entire palm, cupping it and lifting out a handful of the fluid, staring intently as it trickled down his wrist, rained from between his fingers back to its main body. This confirmed it in his mind: it wasn't just a reflection of the dark canopy, and it wasn't something to do with the lake's bottom – the water itself was black. No thicker or thinner than normal water, not gritty, not slimy.
He couldn't help but remember the way that Tifa in Hollow Bastion had boiled the water so severely on the stove. Couldn't help but remember the way Cid had said that people had been getting sick, how the taint had spread to several sources. No wonder – if this was what the people of that town had been drinking, he wasn't surprised that they'd been getting sick, evacuating en masse. He was just surprised that it hadn't been all of them. If this was all Axel had to drink, then…
But, oh. It was all that Axel had to drink. This – diseased fluid was all that he had been able to find, and he didn't have the materials for lighting a fire, nor any suitable container for boiling it even if he had.
Recoiling, he sharply flicked his hand of the droplets, standing and hurriedly wiping his skin against his coat, then his pants' leg. Anxiety began to throb through his veins, the salvation of clean drinking water suddenly robbed away while he kept wiping his hand and nervously hoping that it couldn't infect through the pores. They would have to continue, then. He would have to climb back up, drag himself back up onto the horse, and renew the search for potable fluids. Perhaps if he could find some kind of – plant? Suck the roots dry? But then, what was to say that it hadn't been absorbing this water? He might as well dunk his whole head in now and get it over with, if he was going to adopt that tactic.
He cast a dejected gaze on his surroundings, wondering why the vegetation was still thriving as well as ever when this stuff was doing its best to wipe out any human that happened to ingest it. He supposed the real question of the hour was – how far did this taint spread? He had to outride it – had to get beyond it, to something that wasn't going to make him sick, something that wasn't black. It definitely existed, it had to – he had only heard reports of Hollow Bastionclearing out, not any of the other towns in the area. Plus, if the water was bad to such a broad extent, it would have become a matter of widespread panic and discussion. So that meant that it had to be good, somewhere. It was just a matter of – finding where.
Scratching at his scalp with both hands, dropping them down to his sides and tucking them under his coat to grasp his hips, he sent the lake a glaring look. "God damn it," he cursed quietly, "why can't you be any good? Huh?" Childishly, he kicked the shore, sending a scattering of dirt splattering into the water.
"…I wouldn't do that if I was you," a dull voice advised flatly. Axel leapt a mile in his skin, jolting and whipping around, boot-treads sliding in the mud. A man stood several feet away, by one of the trees, tall with an impossibly thin waist, a blood-red mantle belted at his chest, hanging from his shoulders to end in a ragged, torn hem near the ground. His dark hair was long, kept away from his narrow face with red fabric wound around and around his head, almost covering his eyes. He was white enough to be one of the walking dead, and the colour of his irises was doing little to dispel this initial impression. Oh, God, how Axel wished for his bag – he had a pair of weapons tucked deep in there that would have made him feel a hell of a lot more capable in this situation.
Heart pounding, breathing hard, hands uselessly empty and spread at his sides, ready to bunch and form fists of defence in point-five of a second, he stammered, "Wh – what?"
The man regarded him steadily, an unnervingly detached quality to his gaze that set the redhead's nerves even further on their razor's edge, skin crawling. "This is where they lay their dead." The bewilderment in Axel's face must have shown to the stranger, because he sighed softly, inclined his head beyond the redhead. "Don't kick dirt into the water. Don't skip rocks. Don't touch it. It's where they lay their dead."
With a start, Axel twisted at the waist, glancing back at the lake in utter incomprehension. "It – who buries what here?" His voice was higher than normal. He cleared his throat nervously, turning back to the long-haired man, who had lost interest, turned away and started walking back through the trees, the heavy cloth of his mantle drifting after him like a haunting spirit. Axel blinked, debated for a moment, then set after the man, calling, "Wait!"
"You shouldn't have come here," the stranger said, his deep, gravelly, tone calm as the redhead caught up, steps quick. His dark amber eyes scoured the trees, as Axel struggled with his confusion, fighting for something to say.
"I – I just need some water," he explained, puffing alongside him. "I'm lost. My horse and I were attacked on our way through the forest, and…" A thought occurred to him. If he had managed to wind up here, just from following the lay of the land, and this guy had found it as well, then it was possible that Belle had, too – and who even knew how many others of the ones who had gone missing over the months from Hollow Bastion? If it was the woods that were the problem, then maybe this was why. The aggressive wolves attack, driving horse and rider from the path, and while trying to get home, said horse and rider wind up at some – black lake. So where, from here, did they go? "Hey…" He gazed around with new alertness. "You haven't seen other people like me, have you? A woman, perhaps, with long brown hair?"
The man stiffened, stopped instantly, Axel stumbling past him a couple paces before realising, halting with relief. The feeling trickled into concern as he turned to take in the shock on the other's face. The stranger had somehow turned even paler – porcelain skin turned snow-white, pupils swelling, Axel's eyes widening at the reaction. Thin lips struggled silently for several moments, before the long-haired stranger demanded in a tight, quiet voice, "Have – have you seen her?"
Drawing back a little at the abrupt intensity rolling from his aura, Axel eyed him warily. "…I asked first."
He was seized before he could dodge, his left biceps caught in a crushing grip, long fingers squeezing, hard enough to bruise. "Don't play games with me," the man whispered harshly, irises glowing. "If you've seen her, you must tell me."
Hissing slowly at the pain in his arm, Axel flashed an incredulous look down at the incredible grip, before lifting his gaze back to the man's face, genuine worry beginning to prickle at his insides. "…Why?" he asked. "What're you gonna do to her when you find her?"
For a moment, the man's hold on him tightened even further, Axel fighting back a wince with every ounce of his will – but then, the pressure suddenly vanished, the man backing off a step, hand returning down to his side. His expression was surprising… he looked – desperate.
Axel wondered, stomach sinking, exactly what it was he had done to Belle.
"I would… I'd – I'd tell her that… I'm…" He closed his eyes, trailed off, unable to finish the sentence, whatever it was. Instead, he murmured, "How do you know Lucrecia?"
Axel blinked. "Who?"
The man glared at him flatly. "Lucrecia. The woman with the long, brown hair."
A moment of blankness passed, before he realised. The redhead didn't know whether to be relieved or disappointed. He blew out a breath into puffed cheeks, digging his hands into his coat-pockets. "Huh. So… I guess there's more than one brunette in existence, then." He shook his head, meeting the stranger's intense gaze. "I don't know anyone by that name. I'm looking for a woman called Belle. She went missing a few weeks back, riding through the forest."
"I… see." The man deflated, the agitation leaking away, returning him to the same contained state as before. Axel noticed with a shock that his pupils slipped smaller again, almost to slits, before plumping back into regular circles. The redhead drew back stiffly, eyes round. "I am… unsurprised, then." Turning his back to Axel, the man resumed walking away.
This time, it took a lot longer than a single moment of internal discussion to convince Axel to go after him yet again. Eyes squeezing shut, jaw clenching, he grated once more, "Wait a minute!" Reluctant feet jogged after him, crunching across the ground. The guy was a fast mover – Axel virtually had to run to catch up to him. The brunet didn't slow even slightly, forcing him to breathlessly match his strides, anxiously glancing back towards the lake. He didn't want to lose sight of it – even if the water was useless, Oathkeeper was still waiting up the hill.
Like he was stuck in some time loop, the man said, "You shouldn't have come here."
"I need water," Axel repeated, trying to not get frustrated. "Please, do you know where there's any that's actually drinkable?" Tossing another nervous look behind him, he added, "Something where people don't – lay their dead, maybe?"
"…No," the man replied.
Axel's hopes plummeted. Desperately, he demanded, "How do you know? What do you drink?"
For several paces, there was verbal silence, only the twigs and leaves being broken underfoot by Axel, and somehow – not by the man. "…I don't."
Exasperated, the redhead stopped, letting the brunet draw ahead. He watched his back, bewilderment battling with anger, then sucked a breath, yelled, "What, you don't drink? At all?"
Distantly, the man answered, "No," and continued out of sight through the trees, leaving Axel alone without a second thought. The redhead thought for a third time about chasing after him, and this time, common sense won out. He wasn't going any further than this for someone who was so cryptic and unhelpful. Maybe he'd regret it when he was lying in the middle of nowhere dying from dehydration, but right now, irritation overrode it, boosted by a creeping uncertainty that the stranger had inspired in his chest. It wasn't worth it. He was going back to Oathie.
Turning abruptly, he stalked back through the trees towards the lake, silently seething to muffle his building fear. As he passed the black body of water, he threw it a resentful, worried look. If he and Oathkeeper couldn't drink here, and if there really was nothing in the area that would suffice, then what the hell were they going to do?! He'd never imagined that the cause for his leaving of this life would be chronic fucking thirst. God, but what about the horse? If it got that bad – he would end up watching her die. Which one of them, he wondered with increasing anxiety, would go first? Her injuries were worse than his because of the bites she'd sustained. If he didn't get them cleaned up, infection would occur and spread, she'd get sick, she'd be gone before he knew it…
Ugh. "What the hell?" he muttered out loud, scowling deeply as he started stomping up the hill. Bad thoughts, bad. No one was going to be dying any time soon, he would make sure of it. If it really got as desperate as all that, then he'd just use the black fucking water. Death by infection from wounds, death by infection from corpse water, both were just different paths to the same inevitable fate.
Axel frowned. 'This is where they lay their dead.' Who? Who would make a pilgrimage all the way out here to – place dead bodies into water? He suddenly shuddered, fingers rubbing up and down his shirt before he even knew he was moving them, stomach revolting at the idea that he'd touched that. He'd seen dead bodies before – in his line of work, sometimes finding someone meant finding their fly-ridden carcass – and he'd even touched dead bodies before… but the idea of who-knew-how-many of them, sinking and rotting and drifting apart… and him putting his hand into that…
He paused for a moment, leaning against a darker-skinned tree than the white ones below and behind him, momentarily dizzy at the thought that he might ever have actually consumed that fluid.
For a minute, he closed his eyes, focusing on his breathing, struggling to recover from the shock of the last twenty-four hours. How – had he gone from such a straightforward goal, to this? Eyes opening, he turned them despairingly up towards the thick, dark, swaying canopy overhead, feeling trapped. There had to be a way out, a way to survive, and it was probably staring him right in the face, but… he just couldn't see it. They would only last a few days without water. It was the most menial necessity, something he'd never given a thought to in the past, and now – it was threatening to kill him. A timed explosive had been set and lit under his feet. Once it went, it would take the very legs out from under him, leave him on his chest in this empty place to decompose and fall away.
Bad thoughts. Persistent thoughts. He pushed away from the tree, and resumed his upward journey. Time was against him, now. It was the enemy. All he could try to do was outrun it, and hope to God that they found a clean river somewhere. One with translucent fluid running its depths, and no irrepressibly odd people wandering its banks.
Sweating and panting by the time he had dragged himself all the way back up the semi-slippery slope, Axel took a moment to bend with his hands on his knees, hair hanging down the sides of his damp face, mouth agape and gasping. Pain stung eternally at his nose, but he was beginning to think it wasn't broken, after all. He was sure it would be hurting worse than this, and he had been able to touch it – the bang must have just knocked it badly enough to open up a gush of blood without any actual lasting damage. Hell, but it hurt, though.
Grimacing through the ever-present flavour of blood tainting the back of his tongue, Axel lifted his head, still breathing hard, and squinted as he sought Oathkeeper out. Huh. No sign of her. He had left her further away than he'd realised. Straightening, muscles complaining, he limped over towards where he'd tied her, passing slowly through the many trees, their bark completely normal up here, so entirely different from the ghostly creations growing down by the lake. Sunlight pierced through the treetops in places, seeming to ripple and sway within itself, lighting up the dust that floated on the breeze.
Thirty feet into the woods, he realised that Oathkeeper still hadn't appeared. With a frown, he turned, scanning the area, listening for her carefully. Still unable to see her, he pursed his lips, letting out a shrill whistle that reverberated shakily through the rough trunks and boughs. There was no answering whinny from the mare, no sound of her hooves scraping at the ground, not a whisper of motion of her trying to tug at her reins and follow his alert.
Wondering if he had overshot his mark, coming up further along the hill than he'd realised, he turned and headed back towards the lake, finding the ridge down towards it easily, gazing into the darkness and attempting to recall exactly what angle he'd been looking at it the first time. With a heavy breath, he began pacing its edge, searching for Oathkeeper, calling out to her.
Ten minutes later, there was still no sign of her. Anxiously, he jogged back and forth, growing less and less systematic in his search, shoving aside branches and bushes, yelling, "Oathie! Oathkeeper!" She was nowhere.
And then, he found her bridle, hanging from a tree branch.
He nearly didn't see it, nearly strode straight past it, but it caught his gaze as it swayed slightly in the wind, the motion flickering in the corner of his eye. He swerved, zeroing in on it, expression going from intense puzzlement to slack. He stared for a long moment, then snatched at it, tugging it over the twigs and offshoots, stripping some of the bark in his haste, scarring it. He held the bridle up, reins dangling down to the earth, studying it blankly. For several seconds, he harboured the hope and belief that it was someone else's, that it wasn't Oathkeeper's at all but another horse's, someone who had passed through months or even years ago.
But – it was damp with perspiration. The bit still had saliva on it. It smelled like Oathkeeper, and he should know, because he smelled like Oathkeeper. After three years, he could have just about sniffed her out, blindfolded, in packed stables. There was no mistaking it.
But then, where in God's name was the horse herself?
He looked closely at the tree, recognised it as the one that he had tied her to, almost exactly where he had thought she'd be when he'd got back up. He'd missed it the first time, too busy expecting her to be there to notice some strips of held-together leather dangling down. The branch he'd tied her to was completely undisturbed. It didn't look like it should have it she'd managed to yank free; the leather would have chafed at the wood, would have snapped it if she'd really pulled, but it was looking – fine. There was no sign that she'd been there in the first place.
There were, however, claw marks in the tree trunk. His eyes widened as he noticed. They were fresh; sap was bleeding slowly from the gouged depths. They were broad, and obvious, easily within sight just below the branch. Whatever had made them had long, large talons, capable of raking open flesh like some kind of giant bird of prey.
What kind of forest creature was capable of that?
He didn't hear the footsteps behind him, didn't hear a single thing except for the pounding of his own heart and the swiftness of his shallow breaths.
"They're teasing you."
He let out a strangled cry, clutching the bridle close as he spun around to face the impossibly white, thin, dark-haired man in the red mantle. He stood beside a tree, his hand upon it, looking even more bloodless in the fuller light. His skin was virtually transparent. He blinked about slowly, gazing at the forest with mild curiosity. "…It's been a long time since I've seen real sunlight," he said softly.
Axel swallowed, throat bobbing, eyes narrowing. Chest heaving a little as he gathered courage, he blurted in the next instant, "Where's my horse? What have you done to her?"
Gradually, the man's amber irises turned towards him, no measure of sympathy or gloating in their depths as he said, "I did nothing to your horse. They took her. They have eaten her, and her bones. You should be so lucky to receive the same fate… but I doubt they'll do that." He began to turn, concluding dismissively, "Someone's taking too much pleasure in tormenting you to allow that to happen."
Axel gasped and struggled, lunged forward as the man tried to walk back down into the darkness, snatching at his shoulder and demanding, "What the hell are you talking about?" His voice was a panicked shout. "Who are you? Who are 'they'?"
The man paused, lowered his gaze slowly to the hand clutching him, lifting one of his own and gently taking the redhead's pinkie finger, bending it back with deliberate, calm strength until Axel let go. "…She called me… Vincent. And they… are her people now." He turned his gaze blankly down towards the lake. "They've taken her, and won't give her back." On a sigh, he longingly murmured, "Lucrecia." Axel drew back in bewilderment, anger and fear warring in his face. Vincent looked at him for a long minute, watched the struggle in his expression with detachment. "You mentioned a woman," he said, at length, wary confusion for the moment taking dominance in the redhead. "With long, brown hair. Like Lucrecia's."
Axel was frustrated. "No, I told you –"
"There is a place where people go to die," the man interrupted quietly. "…Perhaps your woman is there."
Green eyes widened. He hesitated. "What is it with you and death?" He shook his head sharply, trying to clear it, stating, "Besides, she didn't want to die, she was trying to find her father, who also went missing somewhere out here."
Slowly, Vincent nodded. "Then perhaps," he murmured, "she really is there. The place where people go to die… it is where their heart's desire rests."
Axel glared. "I – really have no idea what you're saying."
The dark-haired man turned his eyes towards the light, lips moving silently for a moment, as if speaking to himself, before he said aloud, "Return with me down to the lake. I can't stay up here, or I risk losing Lucrecia." He turned without waiting for a response, heading back down into the deep shadows. Axel hovered uncertainly, hands forming fists by his side, one clenched around the worn leather of Oathkeeper's bridle. "What about my horse? I want to find her a hell of a lot more than I want to find Belle right now!"
His voice drifted back up, "You should forget the animal. I told you; they ate her. They like flesh."
Furious at the careless way that this bastard insisted that his mare was long written off, Axel drew a breath, bellowed down, "They! Who?!"
Eyebrows drawing together, the redhead whispered, "…Heartless? What?" He gazed down after the man, torn with indecision, glancing briefly back at the tree where Oathkeeper had, once upon a time, been securely knotted. Oathie? He felt a vicious stab at his gut, grief and terror for her. She couldn't have been eaten. This man was insane. But then – where… was his horse?
He lifted up the bridle, expression twisting, before looping it quickly around his neck and scrambling down the crumbly, leaf-strewn hill. The air chilled all over again, the light leaking away, the trees changing from brown to brittle white.
Reaching the bottom, panting and puffing, Axel stumbled through the mist after the man, who had resumed his irritating habit of just walking away. He grabbed a handful of his mantle and yanked savagely, snarling, "Where the fuck do you think you're going?" Vincent staggered slightly under the force of the pull, turning his head to stare blankly at the redhead. "You're the one that got me back down here," Axel continued angrily, "you're the one who thinks my horse is dead, and you're the one that apparently knows fucking everything about this place, so don't you dare try doing that same shit as before and leave me behind!" As Vincent just blinked at him, the redhead demanded, despairingly, "Who are you? Why are you even out here? And I don't care about your name, I just…" He lifted his free hand, pushed it into his hair and snatched a handful, tugging sharply, teeth clenching, mind swimming. "I need to know what's going on," he whispered desperately, meeting the man's gaze beseechingly. "And you're the closest I've got to someone who has a clue."
Startlingly, Vincent – laughed. Just a little. Just a small huff of amusement. But a definite laugh. Axel slowly let him go, hopeless, shoulders slumping. "You're lost," the dark-haired man summarised, sounding faintly entertained. "Your horse is gone, and you don't know where, or how. There's nothing to drink; nothing to eat; you're doomed before you even begin. And, to make matters worse, you're no good to anyone." The mirth died in his features with a suddenness that was frightening, like watching his soul shrivel behind his eyes. "You're no good to the woman you love."
"She's not my woman, buddy," Axel hissed insistently. "She's another guy's wife, I'm just trying to find her and get her home." He tipped his head back, closed his eyes. "I just want to be able to find her again… but how the hell am I meant to do that if I don't even have my horse, if I'm trapped here with no way out?" His eyes searched Vincent's, bleak and discouraged. "I mean, what about you? You don't know how to get out, do you? Or you would have by now. How did you get here? How are you surviving, when the only thing to drink is that goddamn lake?"
Vincent's shook his head."I wasn't telling you your own story," he said bluntly. "I was telling you mine."
Axel faltered. "But… wait…"
"I saw her once," the man continued. "I followed her here, and now I can't find my way back." His gaze was – hollow. Axel couldn't help but stare. "It's okay, though," he added softly. "I've long since decided I don't want to." He lifted his eyes to Axel's, a thin, nothing smile in place, like the expression of a dead man, the redhead unable to hold back a flinch. "This is… the closest I'll ever be to her."
Uncertainty flickered anew in Axel. The sensations of his anger and helplessness faded, withered by the odd man in front of him, the apparent balance between sanity and… complete and utter madness. This stranger wasn't going to save him – not him, nor Oathkeeper. Wherever she was, he would have to hunt her down himself. Never mind this talk of… of…
The redhead's lips parted, the words coming out almost of their own volition, voice low as he asked, "What do… 'Heartless'… look like?"
If Vincent was perturbed by the abrupt swerve in the conversation, he didn't show it. He responded, without hesitation, "Black. They are shadows, with yellow eyes, claws and teeth. They eat the living." He gestured. "This lake is where they lay their dead." He lifted his eyes to the trees. "And this forest is where they keep Lucrecia."
Black shadows with yellow eyes, claws and teeth.
Axel had most certainly seen some of those. They were… real?
"…They eatthings that are still alive?"
"They eat life," Vincent corrected impassively. He lifted his chin, gazing disconnectedly into the trees. "They lack beating hearts, and so they crave them."
And have they taken yours? Axel wanted to ask. The man barely seemed as if he breathed, let alone needing anything to survive out here. He hardly even seemed human, the longer that the redhead was in his presence.
Green eyes were drawn over towards black water. It was perfectly still, like some kind of tainted looking glass. And this was why? Because there were – dead… shadows… inside it? Axel wanted nothing more, in that moment, than to crouch down somewhere by himself, clutching his head in his hands, and just – take some time out for a while. He needed a chance to take this in, damn it, and not just take it in but form a whole slew of logical explanations as to why none of this could, in reality, be actually happening.
Where was Oathkeeper, damn it?
But of course, he couldn't do something like that. He didn't have the luxury of time, or the solitude, to indulge in it. All he could do was stand there with his fists shaking at his sides, staring at the unemotional man across from him, and wish he knew all the answers to all the questions that had ever plagued him. If he had been better at knowing what he so desperately needed to know, then he wouldn't have been in this mess in the first place.
The only thing he could be sure of was that, whatever was out here, whatever was happening, and wherever his horse had got to, he couldn't stay. He had to get out of the woods, had to find the road again, and follow it either back or onwards. Without that point of direction, he just didn't know where he was going. His gaze darted fleetingly at Vincent, reluctant to hold the man's eye for any number of moments.
"…Look," he said uneasily, tongue flashing out to wet his lips, "I'd be – really appreciative if you'd just tell me a way to get out of the woods. You seem to know your way around, at least a little… Do you – remember which way you entered the forest from? If you're just as lost as me, then… maybe we can get out together. Help each other." The idea didn't thrill him, but he really didn't think he could do it alone. It had taken so much travelling on horseback to get this far – on foot, it was going to take so much longer, and at least this way he'd have someone watching his back. He wasn't going to be able to just crash around looking for Oathkeeper with no idea of where he even was in relation to where she might be. He hoped, in the back of his mind, tasting bitterness on his tongue, that she would manage to find her way back to Hollow Bastion, just like Belle's horse had. However she'd got free, it had to have been her own doing. The anxiety of being alone must have been too much for her… she must have – struggled until the bridle just… slipped off, however that was possible…
Eaten indeed. No way, not a chance. Not his horse. And not to monsters.
Axel made his decision, mind finally, firmly rejecting the possibility of the shadow-like beasts. It was all just illusion. They couldn't be real, there was no such thing as monsters.
It felt like such a childish thought to be having – like a little boy repeating it to himself over and over as he leapt up onto his mattress, avoiding having his feet within grabbing distance by whatever creature his mind had conjured to inhabit the space under the bed – but he echoed it over and over, making sure it stuck. There was no such thing as monsters, shadow or otherwise. He was obviously in the company of a madman – that took no stretch of the imagination to conclude. And okay, Axel was planning on trying to travel with said madman, which possibly made him a little mentally shaky himself, but a general went to war with the army he had, right?
It was about survival. Axel had instincts, damn it, and they demanded action.
Vincent hadn't been listening to his suggestion, though. His gaze was fixed on some distant point, eyes briefly widened. Axel tried to re-engage his attention exasperatedly, then jerked and stepped sharply back as he caught sight of the narrow, cat-like pupils within the alien pools of his irises, definite this time, wrong.
The dark-haired man's lips peeled back from his teeth, a slow hiss leaking out from between them, Axel's heart pounding hard enough to be heard halfway across the country. He didn't know what the hell was going on, was waiting for him to turn into some kind of vampire and attack – but then Vincent whispered, "Lucrecia."
The redhead turned, following the direction of his gaze in bewilderment, finding nothing but everything that had always already been there. A heartbeat later, Vincent was gone. It took a second for Axel's gaze to catch up with the blur of motion, whipping around as Vincent took off, shouting, "Lucrecia, wait!"
"Vi –! Vincent!" Axel jolted through the leaves two steps, paused, then let out a growl, lowered his head, and sprinted after the man. He couldn't lose sight of him, not when he so badly needed him! "Vincent!" he called, feet slipping as he turned sharply around a tree trunk. The man moved like lightning, growing further and further away, the only thing keeping Axel from losing him completely being the stark contrast the blood-red mantle made within the white trees with their phosphorescent radiance.
The redhead wheezed as he ran, arms and legs flying, coat flapping behind him like a pennant, boots slamming over the earthen floor. Sweat he didn't think he had left trickled down the sides of his face, mingling with the dirt and blood, sliding into his eyes and open mouth to add an increased saltiness to the bitter tang already existing. He pressed on desperately, despite his lack of energy, despite his inability to draw a deep enough breath, despite the fact that his punished muscles had had enough and could take no more. Vincent was racing just as hard, with a hell of a lot more capability, and a fluid speed Axel couldn't hope to possess even when he was in peak condition. Exhausted disbelief tore at him, fuelling anger, resentment, a desire to snatch hold of the man and scream until he listened.
Losing all pretence at patience and temper, what little reserves he had well and truly spent, Axel finally gave up, punching the air and bellowing furiously, "There is no Lucrecia, you fucking asshole! There's no one there!" His voice echoed unanswered through the increasingly quiet woods, Vincent vanishing up ahead. The redhead spat a mouthful of bloody saliva into the dirt, helpless rage pumping through his veins. He continued at a swift, limping walk, having no chance of catching the man, but having no real other choice; he didn't even know where he was anymore. As if he had at all to begin with, but at least the lake had provided a base of sorts. Now where was he? Lost among a bunch of skeletal fucking trees, with no horse, no hope, no way out. Everything was useless.
Huffing, swiping the sting of perspiration from his eyes, Axel continued determinedly, anger pounding in every stomping step, eyes as narrow slits, teeth now permanently clenched behind peeled-back lips. Then, up ahead, a flash of red caught his eye – he paused, stared, brow smoothing out from its furrowed state in startled surprise. In the next moment, he was half-jogging, the fastest he was able to go, hands pushing at the trees as he passed them, eyes wide as he kept the bright colour in sight.
He staggered into a clearing, Vincent standing perfectly still in the centre, not paying a flicker of attention to the redhead, who stumbled to a stop and bent at the waist, gasping for air, small, tight coughs escaping his aching chest. "Are you done now?" he snarled hoarsely, in between breaths. "Can we stop frolicking through the trees?"
"Ssh." Vincent was looking around slowly, jaw set grimly, eyes dark. "…She's talking."
Exasperation welled and erupted, Axel sarcastically snapping, "Who, your imaginary girlfriend? Excuse me for interrupting."
The man fixed him briefly with a cold look, before returning to scanning the trees, turning slowly on the spot. "…I don't understand," he said softly.
"There's no one here," Axel replied sharply. "Unless I'm talking, there's nothing to understand."
"She wants… you." Vincent's voice was hushed, the way he scanned the clearing giving Axel a creeping feeling, the air taking on a charged sensation, as if there really was someone else, out of sight, out of perception, whispering. He shivered sharply, shook the itching prickle away, straightening cautiously.
"She doesn't want anything," he said testily. "Tell me, Vincent, if you can see her, where's she meant to be standing?"
"She's not standing anywhere," the man replied. "I always lose her here." He gestured across the clearing, Axel frowning and twisting.
"'Here'?" His eyes widened, muscles tensing. "…Oh."
It was – like a gaping maw. Strange, that he hadn't noticed it the very instant he'd arrived, because it drew light into itself like some kind of magnet, swallowing it, sucking the air dry of it in a square-foot radius. The forest seemed to knot itself into a frenzy on that side of the clearing, focusing around that one point as if this were its purpose, the very reason the forest existed, to surround and tangle and form…
Axel squinted incredulously. "Is that… a door?" He blinked, head drawing back, a slight buzzing taking residence within his skull. He massaged one temple with the base of his palm, looking to Vincent for answers. "What is that?"
His gaze was on the ground, steadfastly avoiding staring into the black hole that was the arch-like opening within the snarl of vines, branches, weeds, knotted roots, brambles, creepers… roses? "…I can't tell you for sure," the man muttered. "A labyrinth; a maze; a treasure chest. People go in, and they don't come out again. They die in there." He paused, reaching up to touch his own face, as if – ascertaining that he was still there. "They die… happy." He lifted his head, gaze meeting Axel's, firmly not looking over towards it. "This… is the place I told you about. Where people come to die."
Axel stared, first at him, then over at the vortex of vegetation, forehead creasing with the force of his frown. Before he could pass any judgement on the idea, before his logical good sense could intervene and convince him, as with the shadow monsters, that the man was once again spouting lunacy, Vincent added dimly, "She wants you to enter it…"
Axel barked out a laugh. He couldn't help himself. Vincent's face jerked up, surprise on his waxen features, followed by a narrow-eyed scowl. Axel just took a deep breath, the first one in a while, and grinned, a manic quality to the curve of his lips, shaking his head. "You're out of your mind," he stated, amused. He chuckled a little, though the humour was fast leaving his body. "You are… you're…" He sighed heavily, voice lowering. "You're out of your mind, Vincent. You're sick."
He'd been thinking; Vincent had obviously been here for a while. It was evident in the ragged quality of his mantle's hem, the unkemptness of his long, long hair, the absolute skin-and-bone of his body… but yet, he lived. And how did he live, when Axel was so close to dropping, dizziness constantly hovering at the edges of his vision, waiting to descend and clasp itself to him until he fell first to one knee, then the next?
By drinking the black water. That's how. Maybe not the lake itself, since he seemed to have certain delusions about its purpose… but – he had to be getting his sustenance from somewhere, and the tainted water wasn't just restricted to one body. So this had to mean that… Vincent was – sick. Both physically and mentally. He just wasn't… well. And – and that weird thing, with his eyes? His pupils? That had to be part of it. Cid had mentioned nasty symptoms, something about the eyes. His brain, it must have… lost the ability to properly dilate and contract them, or something. Not to mention what all this darkness would be doing to his vision anyway…
He rubbed his hands through his hair, dragging at the knotted spikes, feeling the build-up of sweat and grime, briefly closing his eyes and taking another full breath. "We need to get out here, Vincent. You and me, we need to help each other out. And then you can get help, and I can find Oathkeeper and keep looking for Belle like I promised, and…"
"The woman with the long brown hair," Vincent murmured, brows furrowing, eyes lighting up with realisation. Axel nodded wearily.
"Yes, yes, the woman with the –"
"She's in there," the man cut him off sharply. He glanced towards the other end of the clearing, darted his gaze just as swiftly away again, uneasy but with some spark of excitement. "Your woman, your woman is in there, that's why Lucrecia wants you to go!"
"She's not my…"Axel hesitated. "Wait, what?"
Vincent nodded quickly, eyes all over the place now, back to looking for Lucrecia as he explained, "She keeps asking for you, Lucrecia, she keeps saying that you have to go in… I couldn't understand it, she only ever asks for me, asks me to rescue her so that we can be happy at long last… But all this time, since you appeared, she's been asking for you, and this is why." He trailed off into thought for a moment, an alertness about him that suggested he was once again listening to something out of Axel's aural range. "It is your woman, isn't it?" he asked intently, continuing to search the trees. "Lucrecia… she says that the person you seek is within. Waiting." He paused, held his breath for a moment, then whispered, eyes slipping shut, "I can hear her voice."
Axel faltered, the humming in his head continuing. "…I'm confused," he said carefully. "I thought you said you didn't see anyone of Belle's description come through here. You only saw Lucrecia, right? You thought she was who I was talking about, at first." Vincent didn't reply. Axel glared. "Vincent."
The man reluctantly returned, but whatever lucidity he had managed to scrape together had obviously been scattered. He was back to being distant, odd, eerie, as he softly sighed, "Lucrecia saw the one you seek. Not I."
Axel wanted to sit down and start yelling, with no end in sight. "So, what you're telling me is that…" His fingers squeezed together into his palms, control asserting itself over his exhausted temper before it could break. "Lucrecia – saw Belle. Lucrecia."
"It would seem so," Vincent murmured back.
"Oh, jeeze," the redhead muttered, wiping his face hard. "The figment of your imagination saw the girl I'm looking for. Great. And –" He dropped his hands, pointed with an uncertain look. "You – I mean, Lucrecia – thinks she went in there?"
Vincent nodded. "That's correct. It's where they all end up."
"All who?" Axel demanded. He glared at the man. "Exactly how many people have you seen go through here, Vincent?"
"I'm not the one that sees them," he answered softly. "Lucrecia does. She speaks to me… inside myself… and tells me about the joy they encountered at the labyrinth's heart. She always hopes… to convince me to do the same." He smiled bitterly. "But I can't. I don't deserve that kind of happiness." His hollow gaze lifted to the treetops, an empty depth to them, as if they were the windows to a soul that had been long carved out and discarded. "Lucrecia died because I…" His voice faded. A silence developed.
"…She's dead?" Axel warily ventured. He pinched the bridge of his nose out of stressed habit, winced violently as a sharp pain shot through his face. "But don't you get it now? This proves that you can't be seeing her."
Vincent inhaled slowly. "No… her spirit wanders. This is – Heartless territory." Axel stiffened at the reminder of the monsters, nervous despite himself. "The damned wind up here," the brunet continued quietly. "It's why I'm here."
The redhead's expression hardened. "Oh, yeah? Well, I'm not damned." Determination rising fresh within him, he added grimly, "And neither's Belle." He stepped closer to the man, leaning across, stopping just short of physically grabbing him and shaking insistently. "Vincent, if you saw her go in there, tell me."
The man's gaze was low again. He had obviously stopped hearing Lucrecia, under the weight of so much live speech. "…Lucrecia saw."
Axel gave up. There was no swaying the man, and it cemented further than ever the fact that he didn't have the conscionable option of just leaving Vincent here and making a go of escaping this godforsaken place by himself. The man's mind was twisted. He needed – so much help. He was tragic.
Letting out a long breath, Axel resignedly said, "Alright. Okay. Fine. If Lucrecia says she's in there… I guess I'll just have to go in and look." He gazed again at the swirl of forestry, studying it critically. "Roses," he mumbled. "Why are there roses? I didn't think they grew around this terrain, not wildly like that."
"I wouldn't," Vincent said, Axel looking over blankly. He had lifted his eyes again, was focusing on the redhead intently. "I wouldn't go in there. Not unless you want to die."
"I don't intend on dying," Axel replied sharply. "And if she's in there, I can't just leave her there, either. She might be hurt. She might need help."
"She might be a body," Vincent pointed out blandly.
"In which case, her husband will be very upset," the redhead said tersely, "but at least her casket will be occupied. It's better to know. When someone goes like that – closure is all you want. I intend to provide as much." He turned towards the dark, enigmatic entrance in amongst the wilderness. "If I leave without checking, and she's in there, she'll be lost forever. I won't be able to find my way back, I know it. It's now, or it's never."
"Then make it never," the man advised, the hint of an edge to his words. "Is another's life so much more important that your own?"
Axel paused, the words echoing through his head, the slight buzz within his skull intensifying the slightest amount, fatigue growing stronger with every passing minute. He swallowed dryly. "My life… is defined by another's," he croaked, after several long, silent moments. "Without him, I'm…" The sentence hung, incomplete, his chin lowering.
"…Nothing," Vincent finished gently. He nodded, Axel's gaze snapping up, pain within its depths. "I understand, then. We are the same." He smiled crookedly. "We are each of us only half a man, seeking desperately that which completes us." He inclined his head. "Go, then. If this is what the heart they desire to consume is telling you, follow its lead. Go in there. Be happy, and die happy."
"I'm not going to die," Axel muttered firmly. "I'll find Belle, and I'll bring her out again."
"If you say so."
The redhead stared at him, lips pressed together, frowning. "…Will you come with me?" he asked. "Then we can go back together, like I said."
"…I can't. I told you why," the man reminded him. "I will never willingly enter that place."
Frustrated, Axel suggested, "Wait for me, then. Wait here, and help me carry her if she's hurt."
Vincent shook his head calmly. "There's no point. You won't return. And I could never leave Lucrecia, anyway."
"I don't care about all that," the redhead angrily replied. "Don't keep saying all the same stuff, damn it. Just – hang around, okay? Don't think those thoughts. I will be coming back out, and I'd like for you to still be here. Please, Vincent. You're the only other living person out here, and I need you."
The man hesitated, glanced around the clearing, as if seeking Lucrecia's silent opinion on the idea. Evidently, she wasn't feeling chatty. He sighed quietly. "I'll wait. For a while."
Axel hung his head. He supposed it was the best promise he could extract right now. He just hoped that the second his back was turned, Vincent wouldn't catch a glimpse of Lucrecia's ghost and go chasing after it again. He needed all the help he could get escaping this place. Even without needing someone to depend on for the hike itself, safety came in numbers, right? Those wolves were still out there. Maybe all this would provide was a larger meal for the pack, but hopefully… hopefully… they'd be dissuaded by a group of humans more than they were with a single human riding a mobile meal.
Drawing a steadying breath, attempting to clear his head, muster up some strength and keep his resolve firm, Axel turned to face the twist of trees and roots, the roses' stems threading it and out like barbed wire, thorns unnaturally long and sharp. He approached cautiously, resisting the disturbing pull that the dark entrance seemed to hold, the way it devoured the light, as weak and dim as it was. This was just his imagination running away with him, he knew, but he couldn't help but feel a shiver as his feet took him nearer. He licked his lips nervously, fingers bunching and loosening into and out of fists, glancing momentarily back to make sure Vincent wasn't already on the move. The man stood as tall and eerily graceful as ever, mantle almost glowing with how powerful its colour was in contrast to the world around him.
Okay, then. This was it.
He took a moment to study the curious development, eyes slowly skating over the way every little piece of growing matter had managed to curl itself into this one large entanglement, as if every part of the forest strained to be a part of it. It was a natural occurrence, and yet… it looked and felt so unnatural. It was like…
It was like the sick wind.
It felt like… this was where it originated from. Which was stupid, since winds didn't just originate from holes in forests, but that was just – the feeling that rolled out of it. The air all around it was several degrees colder than it had been standing beside Vincent, like every new anomaly you encountered in this placed chilled the earth just a little bit further. And there was a taste to the air that he couldn't place; it was hard, with his nose out of commission like this. He supposed, eyeing off the roses that bloomed all around it, that they were probably the cause. He couldn't be sure, though. Thinking of Belle having passed this way, he was struck anew with wondering how that lone rose had ended up with Biest.
Perhaps… it really had been a sign.
The thought made him pause. How could that be? How could she manage it? How could one woman, lost and alone, venturing into some… death maze, according to Vincent's less-than-stable appraisal… take one of the roses from this one place that they grew, and wish it back to her husband's side? What on earth kind of magic was that?
He felt a pang of envy towards Biest. If only Roxas had been capable of something similar. If only Roxas… had never disappeared.
If only… he could be found again.
But first… Belle.
An icy breath exhaled slowly from the dark entrance to what Vincent had called a labyrinth, its threads touching the warm skin of Axel's face. He shuddered, reached up and wiped his cheek where it had whispered past like some kind of haunting caress. Enough daydreaming. He couldn't just hover out here for the rest of eternity, playing with what-if's and wishes. He'd heard of injured people, incapable of walking, being able to survive on lichen and dew for up to weeks – if Belle was in here, it was possible she had made it this far by similar means. Every minute he delayed, however, her hope would die a little further. That he had ended up in the same place as her at all was some kind of mind-numbing miracle, the likes of which he himself had never been privy to in his own life. It was time for him to reunite two loved ones, the way he someday prayed he and Roxas would be.
He reached out carefully, placing his hands on either side of the narrow entrance, the sort of height to comfortably admit perhaps a fifteen year old, the rough snarl of small leaves and spiky twigs sticking into his palms. He ducked his head, peering into the darkness, seeing light up ahead, dim and glowing like the trees. Steeling himself, he bent, stepped through, feeling his hair and clothing picked at by the vegetation, but finding no real resistance as he entered the narrow little cavern-like creation.
Initially, he found himself in some form of tunnel, the smell of roses overpowering even his non-existent olfactory abilities. He was forced to stagger along doubled-over, overwhelmed by the feeling of being trapped inside the woven-together wilderness. His hands groped blindly along the walls, feeling the minute thorns and prickles dig into his flesh, his breaths muffled and rebounding in the closeness.
At last, after only a minute or two of dragging himself through, a lifetime in his mind, he emerged on the other side. Cold air enveloped him, refreshing after the stifled quality of the tunnel, and he was able to straighten, anxiously stretching his long limbs, working out a kink that had developed in his neck.
Mid-stretch, he paused, eyes gradually widening at the sight before him.
A labyrinth, huh?
How could anything like this possibly be naturally formed?
He was on a path. An animal track, he supposed, only it was very close to being altogether too clear-cut to be created by passing creatures. High walls flanked him on either side, made up of naturally-occurring stone and the same amalgamation of plant-life as the entrance, only with more… order somehow. It was like someone had cultivated the wild. There was nothing clean about it, nothing trimmed or perfect, but still, there was an undeniable purpose to the feel of it. Not only that, but he could see other – doorways? Openings, branching off either side, as well as a continuance of this main path.
It was a fucking… maze.
In the middle of nowhere.
"Impossible," he sighed. And yet… He shook his head slowly, bewilderment crashing down like a fog through his brain, confusion strong enough to cause pain in his temples. He'd never seen anything like it in all his life, and he had spent a lot of time sleeping in the outdoors, in the in-between areas spanning towns weeks apart. This was just… some insane phenomena. It was incredible.
And Vincent… he was of the opinion that this was where people came to die.
A spike of concern sparked to life in Axel's chest, heartbeat slowing from a rapid pace he hadn't been aware it was climbing to, some of the cloudiness leaving his mind. His exhaustion was gone now – he was too wired on astonishment and adrenaline to feel like collapsing in a heap anymore. Belle was in here somewhere; he was sure of it now. This place was too deliberate to not be harbouring her, on one of its twisting, turning paths. God only knew where, but now that he was here,at least he had a chance of finally tracking her down, taking her home.
Axel started walking. His boot-soles were quiet against the dirt, each step muted by the soft earth, for once inexplicably completely clear of any snapping twigs or crunching leaves, as if someone had come along before him and swept it silent. He heard every sound he made, every breath, every heartbeat. It was like his very existence was amplified.
Lifting his eyes instinctively upward as he emerged fully from under the tight roof of the tunnel, he searched for the sky, and saw only darkness. He didn't see treetops, didn't see leaves, didn't see stars or moon or hint of cloud; he saw nothing. A sense of distance could be felt, but it was like peering into some kind of chasm. There may as well have been no sky whatsoever; no 'up'. The world now officially consisted of a grand total of two dimensions: back and forth, and sideways.
A thin mist rolled along the ground, creeping up the sides of the time-worn boulders and slabs of rock glimpsed between the choking walls of greenery. He reached out a hand as he passed, fingers touching the icy cold stone, dragging their calloused tips along the rough surface.
Then he paused, uncertainly. He – remembered this. Remembered doing this… Walking, and touching a wall, and… He gazed uneasily at his fingers, still in place on the rock. Hesitating, he lifted one knuckle, peering at where the pad had been resting, searching for – a dark stain.
There was none, of course.
He took several steps, pulling his hand along the wall, scrutinising its undisturbed wake, before feeling suddenly foolish. Well… part of him felt foolish. The rest of him… felt that it had been a necessary experiment. At this rate, he was going to start claiming he could hear Roxas, laughing and talking in the distance. With a small shudder, he dropped his hand from the stone, rubbing the cold, gritty surface of his palm against his coat, and shot the wall one last, dubious look before continuing.
He was now officially within the impossible, improbable labyrinth, feeling like he'd crossed a point of no return. His mind shied away from the thoughts that had begun wondering how such a structure occurred naturally, their presence causing pain, the hum in his skull hyping up a notch, becoming a grating, relentless buzz. It felt like he'd swallowed a live bee, the way it vibrated down his throat and into his chest; one that couldn't, or wouldn't, just give up and die.
Frowning, feeling the remnants of the dried blood on his face crack along by now familiar gullies and lines, he pressed a thumb into one temple, his middle finger into the other, and firmly rubbed, spurning all ideas and simply following the set paths before him. One of them would lead him to Belle. If she was in here, then one of these paths was holding her. All he had to do was follow them, right to her.
The maze walls were untamed, curling and thorny, the presence of the roses still felt in the long spines that jutted out, despite the abrupt lack of the flowers themselves. The odd taste had left the air, thankfully; the tunnel must have collected it, making it seem more intense than it actually was. As he walked, he noticed the complete, thick silencing blanketing the place. He couldn't imagine a place such as this being home to anything, not even insect life. There was something altogether too alien about it all, a lonely, empty sensation ghosting its passages.
Axel reached a junction, turned right, gazing over his shoulder at the option untaken, smothering the slow burn in his stomach telling him that nothing about this place was right. He just had to find Belle, and get out. As he swiftly walked, eyes turning warily in every direction, he wondered distantly how on earth anyone could find happiness in here. Where the hell had Vincent got such an impression? He snorted lightly to himself. Lucrecia, no doubt. She seemed to be quite the well-informed figment, after all. Maybe he should have asked her to come along, instead of Vincent.
He took a left, fingers bunching and stretching nervously at his sides, trying to ignore the slight tingle that ran down his spine, the unmistakable and consuming sensation of being watched. It must have been the isolation talking; it was like being home alone on a dark, windy night, imagination running wild as the black windows started looking like eyes, the gusts of air becoming voices. In a place like this, it would be easy to fall victim to paranoia, but he had to resist it. The only one in the vicinity aside from himself was his shadow, nothing more. It followed his steps doggedly, shivering in the uncertainty of the faint illumination.
He took another right, flying blind, with no idea where he was going or how to get there, only an uncertainty there was most probably a point of the maze where he was required, and that continuing motion was the only way of eventually reaching it. With a worried breath, he supposed that all else he could do was raise his voice and start calling… but he was loathe to in this hushed atmosphere. It was all the oppressiveness that the woods around the lake had held and more, and the only thing keeping crawling anxiety firmly at bay was his refusal to fall into the trap of superstitious obsession. It was too simple a thing to do; humanity was haunted by its own fabrications and perceived threats that weren't there and never would be. When one made a profession out of hunting down those that appeared to vanish without even a wisp of smoke left as evidence, one learned damn quickly to focus on little but facts and instincts. Hearsay and rumour had a time and place, and old wives' tales were less than trash in the gutter.
There were no magicks in the world that would bring Roxas back to him, and, similarly, no intangible force that could keep him away. He couldn't believe in one and not the other, and so he chose to believe in nothing; he would trust only what he could achieve. All else would only ever be a trick of the mind.
With this in mind, Axel inhaled, swelling his lungs, eyes darting unhappily, soul sensing his intentions with regret, and called out, "Belle!" His voice split the silence apart like glass falling to pieces. It grew a life of its own, shouting across and across and across, bouncing back, shooting sideways, ricocheting up into the blank darkness, before finally falling away, leaving a spiritual residue hanging like some kind of invisible smog on the air.
There was no response.
He grimaced, waited several moments, boots padding against the earth, before sucking another breath, cupping his hands around his mouth, yelling, "Belle! Belle, can you hear me?" Nothing. Not the faintest – hint of a sign of recognition. He could have been entirely alone for miles upon miles, with the slender exception of Vincent, who might or might not have been waiting for him outside… that is, if Axel ever got outside again. He had made no track of his progress, no markers, not even any major footprints to follow. He was like a phantom in this place, leaving no imprint of his presence whatsoever.
The watched feeling increased. With every step he took, it felt like another set of eyes had opened and started blinking. "It's just your imagination," he whispered, his words swallowed by the silence the second he uttered them. Saying it out loud like that only made it worse. By vocalising it, he was acknowledging that there was something to ignore. He was pushing back the fear, and in doing so, perpetuating it.
Swallowing it down as hard as he could, Axel broke into a jog. Suddenly, sound was existing again, the ground unable to fully silence the thud of his feet as his body slammed from foot to foot with the sort of heaviness reserved for intense tiredness. His coat rustled and brushed his legs, his breaths were actually audible now – and he felt like he was being devoured, like every little noise that proved he was alive was being sucked into invisible jaws and consumed.
He started to get – even tireder.
His energy, the bare-bones illusion of it, was spent far too quickly, and he was back to walking before he'd made any real progress except to lose himself further within the tangle of paths. He called again, raggedly, "Belle! Hello! Can anyone hear me?"
Only this time… there was an answer.
"Help! Hello, help me!"
Axel froze, eyes shooting wide, hands springing out from his sides as he twisted sharply on the spot. He stilled his breaths, ignored the thunder in his chest, waited through a moment of silence then yelled, "Hello!"
Almost instantly, there came, "Help me, please! I'm hurt!"
It was a woman's voice, undeniable, torn and harsh, filled with desperate hope. Axel was running before he knew what he was doing, bellowing, "Belle!?"
She cried, "Here! I'm here!"
He threw himself around a corner, the mist thickening on the ground, curling up his legs only to be banished as he sliced through, roaring, "Keep talking! I'll follow the sound of your voice!"
"Please! I've been waiting for so long!" She was starting to cry, he could hear it in her voice, as he sprinted along one long path and cut to the right, steps skittering as he kept his balance and pelted headlong down the new one. "I've been here such a long time! Please, please don't leave me!"
His breaths were gasps, chest bursting with butterflies, with excitement, with relief. "I'm coming!" he yelled. "I won't leave without you!" She dissolved into quiet sobs, the sound echoing through the passages, over the tops of the high walls, and every time Axel took another turn, it got louder, clearer. He forgot about his fatigue, forgot his pains and woes and Oathkeeper, he forgot even about Biest sitting in a castle in Hollow Bastion nursing a single red rose and waiting for his wife to be rescued by a man he'd never met in his life before the other day – all that existed was the broken weeping that drew him ever nearer, one path at a time, until he could hear her so close! If he had been taller, stronger, superhuman, he could have leapt over the next high wall and been beside her!
He ran to her, every nerve and muscle filled with a fire that wouldn't die until he was holding her in his arms, carrying her out, saving her life. He could see it, in the distance, the last corner, he lowered his head and all but flew towards it, hands already almost able to feel her as he gently lifted her from her weakened, malnourished, injured place on the cold, hard ground.
Then, he was there. The final sprint. A long passage, an opening down the very end, her voice travelling crystal-clear along it as she thinly begged, "Please, find me!" He ran, and he ran, and he grew closer and closer and closer, and she whimpered, "Please, Axel, please!"
His steps slowed abruptly, boots gouging up earth as he pantingly entered what could only be the heart of the labyrinth, the air icy enough to leech the heat from his very bones, mist thick enough to blind all but the occasional glimpse of plant life and large, loose rocks littering the ground. Bewilderment crashed through him, the buzzing in his head returning with a scream, a spike of pain, as he blurted in confusion, "Axel? But –"
The mist rolled and swayed to its own silent, waltzing tune, swirling lazily, parting at its centre, and there, there sat, there, there…
Like a sleeping prince out of a fairytale, there he was.
He was upright, sitting on what could only be called a throne made of stone, wrapped thickly in roses and other creepers, and for a heart-skipping, breathless second it looked as if the blond would lift his bowed head, blink his blue eyes, and smile.
But Roxas… was unconscious. His chin rested against his chest, shoulders slumped, no sign of life in any inch of his limp body.
Axel's head shook of its own accord, pulse leaping and sputtering, throat letting out a croak of wordless sound, before he helplessly, shakily uttered, "But – that's not…"
Don't finish that sentence!
His mind screamed at him like a howling banshee, snapped his jaw shut, teeth clicking together and tongue stilling, terror bursting through his veins, because if he finished that sentence, if he denied Roxas' existence in this place, in this moment, then he might go away.
He was… here. At last. Axel was… looking at him.
He choked a stilted breath, a high wheeze of confusion and fear and dreadful, mind-numbing hope. He took a leaden step forward, body feeling a hundred pounds heavier per limb, and entered the mist. It wrapped around him, swirled and consumed, crawling up his body in the moments that he was still, only to be banished into nothingness as he took another slow, jerking step, eyes not even blinking for fear that the apparition would vanish in that one blind instant.
The closer he got, the more apparent it became, though. Roxas. He was… actually here. He was here, and he was – real. Because – because Axel had to blink eventually, and even though he was so frightened that reality would have reasserted itself when he wasn't looking, Roxas was still… there, when he opened his eyes. Roxas – hadn't moved.
Roxas… couldn't move. The rose stems that had encircled and swallowed the base of the inexplicable throne, curling up along its high, stiff granite back sprouting opulent red flowers along the way, also had encased the blond's wrists and forearms, binding them cruelly to the stone. His ankles were the same – the plant had trapped him firmly in place. There was no escape, all on his own. None.
But – Axel was here now.
"Roxas," he whispered brokenly, entire body trembling uncontrollably, shivering as hard as if he were knee-deep in ice and snow, torn between diving forward and grabbing the boy, shaking him hard to wake him up, and absolute terror that to touch him would break whatever fragile illusion this might be. Roxas couldn't be a breath that would fall apart between his fingers. He would take Axel's mind and soul with him, if he did.
The redhead had been strong enough to survive on the hope of finding Roxas one day; he did not, however, have the ability to withstand watching him vanish from right in front of him. He just couldn't. Every instinct that cried self-preservation was begging him to leave the scene untouched, and let sanity continue on.
But his heart… was wailing for Roxas.
He moved closer, chest almost hurting from the thunder within. One hand crept out, the nails dirty, the lines of his palms filthy, marked with blood in places, and hesitantly… touched one gnarled rose stem. It was one of the ones wrapping Roxas' hand to the arm of the throne, and it didn't fade away with the contact. It felt – hard, and unyieldingly real. It was threaded tightly with so many others, locking the blond's arm down without reprieve. It had… to hurt. And the thought of Roxas in pain… that hurt, it hurt Axel so much.
A moment's hesitation passed, his hand shaking violently as it lifted from the stem, hovering indecisively, before, throat bobbing as he swallowed, Axel closed his eyes, and pressed his fingers onto Roxas' knuckles.
They were… cool to touch.
Roxas was – cold.
Chest hitching, green eyes flashed back open, Axel crouched, forgot his fears and grabbed the blond's face in his hands, new horror building to replace anything he might previously have felt, overwhelming all, sweeping it away, shattering it, his hoarse voice bursting out, "Roxas! Roxas!" Lifting the boy's heavy head, he gazed desperately at softly-shut eyelids and a slack expression of peace, no reaction to being touched, to being called. Choking, he groped at the boy's chest, felt for life… found it. Roxas' breaths were deep, and so gradual they were hard to detect at first, but present – definitely present. He was… so very deeply asleep. He was miles out of reach.
But he was alive.
Axel went weak, nearly dropped to his knees and slumped under the weight of the relief, tears pricking at his eyes, born from so much fear and confusion. Sucking a heavy inhalation through his teeth, he gazed up into the blond's face, looked upon it for the first time in three years, never imagining… never…
…He'd never imagined that when he'd last looked at this fair skin and these golden spikes, when he'd looked into those blue eyes and that smile, when he'd last heard that voice… that three years would pass before he'd encounter it any hint of it again. He had said good-bye to the person he loved that day, and… not realised that that was the end of it all. Of anything, of everything. That Roxas, in practically the next heartbeat, would be gone from the face of the earth, undetectable, with so many frightening rumours of abduction and murderers and insanity being all to fill his head and heart in the months to come.
Tears were running down Axel's face without his realising. He didn't feel them, didn't know they were there. He didn't taste them as they trickled into the corners of his mouth and down his chin. All he knew in that moment, all he breathed, was Roxas. One hand lifted, briefly cupped his cheek, trembling fingers smoothing up along his brow and carefully, fearfully touching his hair, the man still not entirely sure that this wasn't going to turn out to be – just another beautiful, dreadful dream. His voice came in a low, cracked whisper, "Roxas…"
The boy continued breathing.
Axel had to get him out of here.
The conviction was so powerful, so sudden, that it nearly made him swoon, head swimming sharply, breaths coming thicker than before as his throat swelled. He had to get Roxas out of here. He was cold, damn it! Axel needed to get him home. After all this time, he had finally found him – the time for staring and wondering could wait. Roxas needed help, he needed saving, he was trapped and Axel was the only one who could break him free.
His fingers fell away from the soft, supple skin and sweetness of the blond's slumbering face, hooked into claws, and started tearing at the rose stems binding him down. A frenzy built within him, a heat under the surface of his skin, searing his mind and spirit as it drove him to fight for his beloved. The thorns were many, though – they ripped at his pathetic nails and fingertips, the stems thicker and stronger than they looked, more like steel wire than mere organic matter to be clipped and put on display with rich red flowers. Axel picked and pulled and clawed and struggled, he sweated and battled, he blinked through the perspiration, gasped through the burning rise of his temperature, ignored the blazing pain that began to build between his temples as the humming buzz increased and increased with every ounce of effort he put towards breaking Roxas free.
Nothing else mattered in this moment, though; there was no pain, no instincts, not even desire or hope – it was all a fierce madness born from desperate, deprived love. Axel would pull Roxas loose even if he had to feed every particle of his soul to the devil in order to do so. It didn't matter if he got hurt, he didn't care if he lost more than he gained, if only it meant that Roxas was back in his life.
Three years of searching for others' lost ones had culminated in this; this wild fire that had burned all along, that had eaten him alive in his attempts to find Roxas, have him safe and free alongside him again.
This was what happened, when one wasn't lucky enough to be given a sign that everything would work out in the end.
Axel was weeping silently, still unaware of it, even as the tears mingled with the last of the blood that stubbornly had refused to be dislodged by his sweating and rubbing, tinging each little shivering bead a rose-pink as it passed through. He panted, hands becoming more and more injured by his efforts, with little effect to the bindings themselves. At some point, he shifted down to instead try and make an impact on the ones wrapped around Roxas' ankles, but the end result was much the same.
Axel's hands, when he finally ran out of tears and every spark of strength he possessed, were ruined masses of stripped flesh, the sting of thorn-tip poison burning viciously behind the greater pain of the damage.
He was finished.
He couldn't… do it.
Roxas was stuck here, and not even the person who would kill and die for him could do a single thing to break him free. There was no answer, no rescue, no way that the blond could survive for much longer than he had. However he'd got here wasn't an issue. Whoever had put him here wasn't an issue. Whatever was happening right now… it wasn't an issue.
The buzz subsided from his head, leaving only soft, quiet silence. Hands curling against his stomach and thighs, with no environmental sense of time having passed, Axel settled slowly, slowly, between Roxas' legs, resting his head against one of the boy's knees. He lost himself in the feel of Roxas, and of blood.
As long as he could be touching Roxas… then nothing else could possibly matter. Not ever again.
If he couldn't free him, then Axel… would die here. And he would do so happily.
Beneath and behind the insanity that had dragged one broken redhead into darkness, a flicker of consciousness remained. One tiny, distant voice that kept silent, and marked time as best as it could, watching the static world warily. Axel breathed, and kissed Roxas' knuckles, and breathed, and slept, and slowly withered away.
By the sliver of awareness' estimation, two nights and days had passed. That, however, was only a rough approximation. With no sense of light change, or temperature, it was difficult to tell. It continued to gauge what it could, a thinking, emotionless entity, a tiny little seed of lucidity that refused to die, the smallest, smallest part of Axel that recognised that losing himself wasn't an option as far as survival was concerned. Perhaps this little nugget was his instinct; perhaps this was what had aided him so many times, saved him and saved others, as it refused to be drawn into the games that minds played with themselves and one another, too distant from the heart or soul to be affected by its crushing woes or soaring joys.
It waited, observed, noted, never once feeling the pressure of being the one last, delicate little thread that kept a man from snapping entirely.
The third day dawned in theory. Axel sat glassy-eyed, his forehead pressed into Roxas' soft inner thigh, feeling the way the blond breathed. He could almost feel – the blood pumping through his veins. He could clearly remember them, chest to chest, tracking one another's heartbeats through the pulse against their flesh. This was… reminiscent of that. This was his replacement for that.
This was all he was ever going to have.
Weaponless. Too weak to move. Breathing, a chore. Life was ending, one peaceful second at a time, with every rasping, dry exhalation. And that was okay. Because… Roxas wouldn't be far behind. Or ahead. After all this time apart, they would finally – sleep. Never mind those who were left behind, never mind those he had helped in the past and could have helped in the future; this was all the existence that he required. One that consisted of… Roxas.
His gaze turned slowly, as was every motion he made now, and it could have been an hour before he finally looked up at Roxas' face, stared, lips taking yet more time to curve into the dullest, happiest smile on the planet. They cracked, flaked, bled a little, no moisture in them whatsoever. His numb hands shifted, twitched once in his lap as he rested the back of his skull against Roxas' other knee, and settled in for a death that would take him like slumber, the last image to shiver in his mind to be that of his beloved.
Another several hours passed in this manner. He became aware of a faint tingling in his hands, but other than that, physical sensation had almost completely bled from his entire body, stiff from the hours upon hours upon hours of sitting so still. He closed his eyes, so gradually, and felt himself slipping away, into the unconsciousness that kept claiming him more and more frequently. He didn't mind letting go; either he would wake, and see Roxas again, or die, and wait for him elsewhere. And, oh God, he would wait forever, in any afterlife he came across. He would wait, or he would burn the earth and sky finding him again.
The tingling in his hands increased, fingers twitching again. There was a tickle at his left leg, as well, followed by the slightest hint of coldness, which only the granule within his sleepy skull noticed, filing the sensation away, all it could do when his eyes belonged to the irrational, emotional section of himself.
There was a slight pinch, and then the faintest melting breath of warmth against his calf; a prickle that spread up his leg, a slow inch at a time. Irrelevant.
Then, a clawed hand wrapped itself around Axel's ankle, and yanked. He fell limply, Roxas vanishing from view, head connecting with the ground, spikes of crimson hair tangling in the thorny roses. He was pulled sharply again, dragged along the dirt, hair ripping free painfully with the next jerk. His wrists were briefly stopped, before another hard wrench freed him, not without a distant sensation of pain. He was being – tugged along, a foot at a time, blinking up at the sky, over at the roses, back at Roxas' leg, the boy a short distance away by this point.
Axel couldn't deal with this. He couldn't understand. Things were happening, but he couldn't figure out what.
Then, the little grain took control, the voice, the lucidity. It said, lift your head and look, and he did so. It said, Holy God, what the hell is that? a bare, rare, emotional second before informing Axel's wilder section of mind that his left leg was bleeding from what could only be described as a bite wound.
There wasn't a single part of the redhead's sanity, intact or not, that didn't sit up and pay attention to this alert. Alarm bells started screaming in every section of his being, and for the first time in nearly three days, Axel resumed control of his limbs, his mind, and shoved himself up to sitting.
He shouted in fear, and was terrified by the voiceless, harsh quality of the noise. Sense snapped into place hard enough to leave bruises, every single piece of awareness crashing back into position with full panic, as he took in the sight of the short, featureless black monster with the blank yellow eyes, the crazily twitching antennae, looking over its bony shoulder, not quite at him, not quite not at him, its talons tight around his left ankle. Blood ran from a small, gaping wound in his calf, not thick yet, but coming swiftly.
A Heartless. And the fucking, godforsaken little beast had had a taste before deciding to take him away.
Axel shrieked again, a breathless cry, and kicked clumsily, swinging several times weakly before adrenaline surged into action and managed to slam a hard toe into the shadow creature's noseless, mouthless-looking face, too dark to be able to make out anything but its broad, shining gaze. It blinked at him, its grip hesitating, and, teeth gritting now, something dark and hard surging from within, Axel lashed out again, ramming his heel directly into it. The creature's grip broke, its claws snatching at him, drawing scores down his ankle as it fell backwards. He yanked both legs close to his body, scrambling in place, ready to kick out again if it kept trying. His fight had deterred it, though, an air of unmistakable confusion about it as it scuttled away, disappearing through the single opening in the wild walls.
Wheezing thinly, Axel went to grip the earth and half fell when his wrists wouldn't separate. His eyes fell upon his hands, a near-silent, keening wail breaking free an instant later as he took in the poor, poor state of them, crawling with dozens upon dozens of young, thorny shoots. The rose stems had evidently spent the last few days struggling to claim him, trap him, had sunk hooks into his wrists and upper arms. He was bound, utterly, several of the shoots pushing into and under the gashes and cuts in his palms, as if trying to worm under his skin.
Horror flooded his being, wild, screaming fear close behind it, and for a blank moment, he lost himself to it. He pounded his forearms against the ground over and over again, smashing away the tight, green threads as they tasted his blood and stung his flesh, yanked and struggled, beat them into the dust, all but cracking his bones in the effort to dislodge and destroy them.
The seed of lucidity became a thread, spreading veins through the length of his brain and out into each side of his consciousness, reining every blind reaction in and clamping down. His hands were safe again. They burned, they burned, but they were no longer under attack. He panted shrilly, eyes darting ceaselessly around the clearing, but some sense of intelligence had been returned to him, and now instead of seeing only Roxas, sitting on the misplaced, very unnatural throne which was swathed in roses that grew nowhere, nowhere but here, he saw other items littering the ground.
When he'd first laid eyes on Roxas, the shock had stunned him out of paying any attention to his surroundings, and – what had ensued could only be described as utter madness, in which nothing would have mattered to him even if he'd seen it. But now that he was sane again, now that he was looking… he discovered a story laid out, scattered across the bare ground for him to piece together.
Bones. Human bones.
They had been blanked out before by the rolling mist, by the stark, startling nature of the rose-bound throne and its occupant, by obsession brought to roaring life, but now that was on the ground and more-or-less clear-headed, he saw them all too plainly, haphazardly littering the dirt, took note fearfully of their number, far too many of the same sort to belong only to one unfortunate soul.
Revelations came pounding.
Vincent. Vincent, who wandered the woods, claiming he didn't want or deserve happiness – he nevertheless knew that people came here to die. He'd said that Lucrecia told him about them, Lucrecia, who had claimed that Belle was in here, Vincent, who said there were shadow monsters out here, Heartless by name and nature, one of which was enjoying tormenting him, enough so that he wouldn't be eaten, the way that… Oathkeeper had been.
Oh. Oh, his poor horse. His poor, loyal beast of burden.
Vincent had been correct all along. About everything. And that… was why he continued to wander, rather than joining the collection of bones.
But Axel had heard a woman's voice, had heard her calling for help. He had… Had it been Lucrecia? Why would she – lure him in here? Why was she trying to lure Vincent, if this, this was what… she…
…She had to be the one. That enjoyed the tormenting. But she was dead, and so that could only mean that she was – some twisted kind of… malevolent spirit. Vincent was resisting her suggestions to enter the labyrinth, even as he obsessed over her, but Axel, he'd… fallen right into it. He'd been tricked. His lucid mind understood now. The rest of him needed more time to catch up, but it was infusing slowly through his cells and breaths, becoming a gradual enlightenment filled with dread and disbelief. Everything he'd thought to be mere fantasy had turned out to be more truth than he knew how to deal with.
Dragging himself up to sitting, properly this time, he pulled back the deliberately torn strips of his pants' leg and inspected the damage the creature had caused to his inert flesh. He winced sharply, thorn-stripped fingers hovering uselessly over the site of the injury, the pain of it slow to come, but building as the feeling returned to his extremities. He hissed quietly, brows pulling together, eyes squeezing shut as a multitude of overwhelming emotions slammed him one by one, every muscle beginning to quiver. For several seconds, all that could be heard in the heart of the labyrinth was the sound of laboured breaths blasting, shallow and uneven, into the coldness.
Then, a small noise caught Axel's attention, a slight scrape from nearby, over by the entrance, his head whipping around to see the shadow monster re-entering, cautious but prepared to attempt again. It wanted – to take him away and eat him. It had thought he was beaten, limply hunched at Roxas' feet, but all it had done was shock him back to life, angry with fear.
He sucked in through his teeth, eyes narrowing to slits, rage bubbling and surging as the Heartless crept two paces towards him. He rasped a shout in its direction, wordless, aggressive, making it pause, antennae twitching, almost seeming to taste the air. The redhead watched it, grasping his leg as the blood spilled downward through the fair hairs from the bite it had already sampled.
It took another step forward. Axel roared again, a desperate sound, and this time, the hesitation was briefer, it kept coming with rising confidence. Snarling, the redhead grabbed the ground, shoved up to his feet, pain be damned. He towered above the vicious little beast, swaying drunkenly for several seconds before staggering back, legs failing, folding out from under him. He slammed down with his knees turned inward, jaw clicking sharply with a gasp, head swimming sickeningly. He choked, coughed loudly, mouth dry as a desert as he tried to wet his split lips.
The Heartless, when he tore his gaze up dizzily, was coming closer. Axel let out a strangled cry, thrust himself back, struggling again to find his feet and instead rolling onto his spine with a groan, the several days that had elapsed without food or water sapping him utterly. He had nothing to draw from, no strength left. It had bled from his warm body into the chilly stone of the throne, absorbed by the roses and the air. There was nothing in him to give anymore.
The creature drew nearer still, faster now, emboldened by the redhead's obvious weakness. Even if he fought… even if he fought, he would lose.
Hands thrown out to the sides, grunting and feebly coughing, grasping at the dirt, he searched for a weapon, an aide, something to just pull himself up, and met with the claws of the roses, thorns stabbing deep as he clutched at the entwined base of the crumbling grey seat of Roxas' slumber. It was all that there was. He grabbed hold with both sets of fingers and dragged himself up, closing his eyes against the sensation of the already butchered flesh being gouged anew, a tearful breath bursting quietly from over-exerted lungs.
When he opened his eyes, he found himself looking up at Roxas. Time hesitated as he took in the sight of the sleeping blond, soft lips gently parted, chin touched to his clavicle. Briefly forgetting… everything… Axel lifted one agonised hand, brushed his cheekbone with a thumb, never noticing the way he was shaking, shaking so violently.
Blood was left behind from his touch. His green gaze fixed on the smear, stark against Roxas' fair skin, reminding him of… Vincent, inexplicably. Of a deep red mantle in amongst pale, glowing trees. A man with long, dark hair, who said he'd wait, even though he was so sure…
…that Axel was going to die.
Axel's head whipped around just as the shadow beast grabbed him again, a breathless yell exploding from his chest as its claws sank shallowly into one shoulder. He threw his elbow back, stabbed twice until the creature let go, then fell to the ground and scuttled backwards, senses once again returned, unable to stand but capable of slithering along as fast as he could, depriving the Heartless once more of its meal. He clattered through a scattering of bones, dried and dulled with age. But now – now the monster was next to Roxas!
Every instinct switched from self-preservation to protecting the blond in less than a heartbeat, slamming into overdrive. He snatched up the nearest marrow-leached bone, the diameter of his wrist, and flung it at the Heartless without a second thought. It collided bluntly, knocked the little beast back several steps. Its antennae went into a fever of activity, Axel grabbing up what looked to be a femur and hurling it after the last one, missing but hitting the ground right at the creature's black feet, sending it back with a start, blank eyes turning to gaze soullessly in his direction.
Next on the menu was a scattering of smaller bones, all still human, tossed in a rain to patter around the Heartless, bouncing off its round head, its tiny, narrow shoulders. Axel pushed himself back as it shook itself and resumed advancing on him swiftly, ferociously grinning at his victory as it ignored Roxas completely, groping about for yet more impromptu weaponry. His slick, dirt-encrusted fingers wrapped around something dull, domed, his mind recognising its shape even before his eyes settled upon its ivory surface. He faltered, black talons reaching for him, before smashing the fleshless skull into the creature's, feeling both crack, a moment of resistance before the bone crumbled apart in his hand, and the monster with the taste of Axel's blood in its mouth melted into a pool of darkness on the ground, utterly unreflective.
All of a sudden, there was silence. The redhead blinked into the space where it had been, mind struggling to catch up with the fact that threat was very suddenly – gone. He sat breathlessly still, eyes darting, waiting to see if it would reappear somehow.
It… didn't. He had actually won against it.
Monsters were real… and he'd killed one.
He gagged quietly, dropping the last of the skull from his hands, brushing his palms firmly against his pants and pressing a wrist to his mouth. He could feel every prick of pain where the creature had touched him, felt them like burns across his skin. He was glad it was gone, savagely so, but… there was no point in triumphing over this one single death. When he'd seen the creatures hunting with the wolves – and he had seen them, they hadn't just been an illusion, the illusion had been Axel convincing himself that he was safe out here – there had been several of them, and those had only been the ones he'd noticed.
Where one had come, others would.
It was time to get Roxas, and get out.
He turned towards the trapped blond, determination flooding his frailty, solidifying into something he could use to save, if not himself, then the one person here that actually mattered. Leaving Roxas sitting there simply wasn't an option; if he stayed, he'd die.
The first thing Axel had to achieve, though, was standing upright, holding himself up completely under his own steam, even if he had to use willpower like a brace, marionette strings of resolve guiding his every movement until Roxas was where Vincent would find him and could take over. The man was a lot less nuts than he'd first appeared, it turned out, and that meant Roxas stood a chance even if Axel couldn't make it out of this place before his body failed.
Crawling to the throne, the redhead reached up, grasped hold of Roxas' shoulder with bleeding hands, and put every ounce of being into finding his way up and staying there. With several short, sharp breaths of readying, Axel summoned the muscles of his arms, the strength in his legs that had existed on every other day of his life, and lifted himself like a man on his two-hundredth chin-up. Skin blanching, pasty, incapable of properly sweating now but somehow capable of a general, ill clamminess, the redhead hung from the stone back, clutching to it with the same amount of will as would exist should the earth have opened up beneath him. Weak-kneed, he locked his legs in place, and waited for his body to acclimatise to the almost forgotten sensation of standing on his own two feet. His head hung low, breaths trapped between his arms, growing slowly more stable the longer he was up.
He cast a heavy-lidded glance down at the golden thatch of spikes resting below, longing swelling achingly in his chest. I'll get you out of here, he silently promised. There was nothing in his mouth or mind that was ready for words yet. Just keeping his lungs working was a hard enough task.
Minutes passed, and at last, Axel felt like maybe he could let go of Roxas' prison, support himself for long enough to get him out of it. He released carefully, swayed a little, then lowered his arms. His head still swum, there was a lightness to it that wouldn't go away, and – he felt hot. Sick hot, maybe. But, despite all this, he was standing. He could take a step, and not fall down. He was – his own again.
Tottering, he backed away from Roxas and the throne, glazed green eyes taking in the overall view, mind angrily wondering how this sort of thing came to be. Evidently, this was some kind of trap of the Heartless, maybe Lucrecia as well. How many people had found their way here, misled by some voice or another, and fallen to the jaws and claws of those monsters? How many of the bones belonged to those who had gone missing from Hollow Bastion? All of them?
One thing was for certain – he'd never discount some old drunk's 'faerie stories' again, not for as long as he fucking lived.
Now that the greatest obstacle had been removed, now that he was supporting himself, the only thing he had to overcome was the rose stems, the red flowers hanging innocently all around the stone back, as if they played no part in the ruse whatsoever. He glared at them unsteadily, untrusting, before lowering his gaze to the ground, turning in a circle as he searched for a suitable tool to break Roxas free. He hesitated as he spotted the broken pieces of skull, splintered and powdered, one piece in particular catching his eye with its sharper edge. His eyes shifted unhappily to the dark pool where the shadow beast's remains slowly seeped into the earth. He was reluctant to go near it again, wary of a hooked claw coming whipping out like some kind of nightmare brought to life, but in the end, it was the only tool he could immediately see. He didn't have time for fears, damn it. If these creatures laid their dead in the lake, then it couldn't be too long before others of its kind came to collect this black puddle. He and Roxas needed to be gone by then.
Steeling himself, dredging up some of the narrow-eyed scepticism that remained towards the back of his frightened, scattered thoughts, he stepped nearer, bent slowly, careful to not fall over again, sceptical of his ability to get back up if that were to happen. His fingers swung over the calcified fragments, missing with first grab, missing on the second attempt, though his nails touched its surface, snatching it up with some frustration on the third try, straightening again. His vision briefly clouded with wooziness, head feeling worryingly light on his shoulders, while his legs and arms suddenly developed a leadenness that was difficult to shake, but his fingers wrapped tightly around the slice of skull, determined to hold it hard.
Turning back to Roxas, the redhead limped over, each step cautious in case he tripped, but maintaining equilibrium was growing easier the longer he was active. He hesitated in front of the throne, eyeing the rose stems, then realised he had no choice but to give up his coveted standing position. He dropped to his knees at the blond's side, turning the bone in his hands a couple times, eyeing off the thick, stubbornly sturdy stems locking Roxas' wrists in place. His hands still had good colour – this at least meant that the blood wasn't being cut off. But he was sure that if Roxas had been awake, he'd have agreed: this had all gone for more, more than long enough.
Axel lined up the sharp edge of his tool, and started hacking. Silence reigned in the small, square clearing, broken only by small, faint grunts of exertion, and the slight but steady noise of slicing. As he worked, he kept an ear out for approaching little claws, glancing nervously back from time to time, but seeing nothing. Somehow, their luck was holding. He wouldn't count on it for long, though.
Renewing his efforts, Axel grimly watched the stems break gradually apart, the bone's edge serving well. Layer by layer, thread by thread, he passed through the hard brown casing, the dark green innards growing lighter the closer he got to the core of each stem. The first one snapped under the consistent attack, his heart pounding more tightly. The second snapped, butterflies erupting in his gut. He blinked rapidly, staring eyes dying out painfully, quickly twisted his head and rubbed them on the upper arm of his coat.
The third stem snapped, followed by the fourth and fifth, the entire organic shackle created by perhaps a dozen of them knotted and tangled together, looping in and out of one another, thorns spiking threateningly. A sixth, a seventh, and the structure was failing, losing its tension, falling apart. Axel's motions became savage, and with a final snap, the eighth stem broke, the remaining few loosening enough for him to excitedly take Roxas' limp hand and push it through.
The boy's wrist was – surprisingly heavy. He supposed it was because of the utter passivity of his muscles, not a single one working to help himself. That was okay, though; Axel would work enough for both of them. He would do anything for this diminutive blond, and there wasn't a single sliver of his being, sceptical, lucid or otherwise, that disagreed.
Roxas' hand fell into his lap, Axel shifting around on his knees, transferring his attention to the other thorny cuff. The bone was dulling, but he just put more non-existent strength behind it, pushing his weight into his arms, rocking back and forth on his kneecaps in a stilted rhythm, scratching air into his throat. One by one, the rose stems followed one another, jolting apart as he sawed through each final thread.
He fell forward as Roxas' second arm was freed, briefly slumping, eyes shut and panting, onto the boy's lap. Roxas didn't move, didn't react to the battle going on for his benefit, didn't know that the person that loved him most was right there, quietly desperate for some signal that he was going to wake. Roxas, either sick or bewitched, didn't know anything. He didn't feel as Axel pushed himself up, eyes low to keep from being distracted again by the boy's placid beauty, instinctively realising that every time he did, he went away for a little while. He didn't feel as his second hand joined his first, didn't feel as the redhead crawled back a little, readying the fragment of some anonymous person's broken skull in his trembling hands, beginning to rip at the binds on his feet.
The thorns here were longer, they pricked at Axel's knuckles as he cut into the dense tangle. The angle was difficult, his downturned face flushing with blood running too into his head, a blinding heat and clutching vertigo making him momentarily pause, swallowing hard, swallowing nothing because there was no fluid being produced anymore. He would have been sick, if there'd been anything left in his stomach to give. He was forced to lift his head, gasping in several deep breaths, trying to stabilise the flow of things internally.
More slowly this time, he returned his attention to Roxas' feet. His motions were faltering to begin with, but he grew steadier as the minutes passed, slicing until the blond's left foot was free. With only one shackle to go, the bone was beginning to break apart in his hands. Axel twisted it to its most solid point and kept going, praying hard that it would hold just – long enough.
It didn't. Not quite. Not enough to cut Roxas completely loose. It was too brittle; pieces kept chipping off the longer he went, until all he held was useless fragments. Rather than crawling over to find another usable tool, Axel returned to his punished fingers, set to work with his hands, pulling and jerking and ripping, bending low to rip at places with his teeth, when his fingers couldn't feel anymore, spitting little bits of bitter-tasting green and copper-tasting red.
And then, finally, it broke. Roxas' right leg was out, it was free, there was nothing holding any part of him in place. He could had stood and walked away, if only he'd been conscious.
Fighting the urge to slump from the pain, the exhaustion, fighting even the relief at having completed the task because it threatened to steal his phantom strength away with its intensity, Axel dragged himself back up to standing. His mouth hung slightly open as his gums continued to bleed from the abuse that came from chewing through wood, a couple teeth feeling maybe looser than before, though he didn't try too hard to figure out just how bad the damage was. Similarly mutilated hands reached for Roxas, pushing his flaccid arms out of the way and wrapping his own around him.
The temptation to let his legs sag and just stay like this until he fell asleep, maybe never to wake up, was powerful. He had to consciously keep his eyes open, force his stance to remain solid, tighten his grip around the blond and pull backwards, trying to lift at the same time. He stumbled down onto one knee, as all he succeeded in doing was tug Roxas virtually on top of him, struggling to stop the boy from sending them both over. He grunted, huffed, eyes squeezing as he battled to rise, Roxas feeling like… like he was just skin filled with sand. Axel had carried people before, had even carried people when they'd been unconscious, but – he'd never felt anyone like this. As they got upright again, he had to pause for a frightened moment to check that Roxas was still alive, because this kind of weight was nothing he'd ever expected from a breathing being.
Ascertaining that the boy's chest was still rising and falling, the redhead mustered his raw desperation and used it, Roxas hanging bonelessly in his grasp. Hunching over forwards, the blond's scent filling his gradually healing nose for the first time, smelling like dirt, like a handful of rain-enriched soil, Axel slung Roxas over his left shoulder, clutching his legs tightly.
He wobbled with a frantic grunt, legs shaking, threatening to bend; the boy was so damn heavy. This was more than Axel felt like he'd ever lifted in his entire life! Sure, he wasn't at his fittest right now, but this was – it was scary. How was he going to carry Roxas all the way out if he could barely even lift him?
Somehow, he managed. Somehow, his legs didn't crumple from beneath him, sending them both crashing down, and somehow, Axel began taking steps. Little steps, every one of them, small, shuffling, staggering steps filled with tight fear that the next one wouldn't hold. He didn't even know where he was going; it was a labyrinth, for God's sake, it was filled with dead ends and twists, and the only way he'd found Roxas to begin with was by following the voice of a ghost.
For one brief, shivering moment, Axel wondered what had happened to Belle. Had she ever come this way at all? One thing was for sure, and he realised it with a pang of regret – he wouldn't be searching for her again, not even if he survived this perfectly. Roxas would be needing him, after all. And… he didn't think he'd ever be able to bring himself to enter these woods again.
Staggering down the long path that had led him to Roxas, Axel bowed his head, the heat under his skin flaming high, the faint buzz returning to his head, scrambling his thoughts, creating a fog to mimic the one swirling around his ankles. He was back to stumbling, confusion rising the further from the labyrinth's heart that he got.
Teeth gritting, he shambled onward, knowing again that the key to any form of salvation whatsoever was motion. If he just – if he kept moving – then eventually, they might find their way out. It had to happen. It was the only plan that he had.
So, that's what he did.
He walked, and… he walked. And Roxas dangled from him like a deadweight, like some kind of soft corpse, meat with breath, reeking of earth, making Axel weakly choke as if his throat was filling with dirt. He limped, he hobbled, he occasionally fell into short, wild runs, legs frantically trying to regain his balance from having slouched too far forward, Roxas' heaviness dragging him down.
Hours passed. It could have been a day, a week, a year. He lost… all ability to tell. He just kept going, and, and going, and… One by one, the voices in his head were silenced, falling into unconsciousness even as his body persisted, battled, slowly lost. Still, he continued, because to stop now was to admit defeat and leave both he and Roxas to rot in the middle of the overgrown walls, within easy reach of the monsters. And… and maybe that was a fate he could accept for himself, but – not Roxas. His insides cried his agony, eyes too dry to think about producing tears, but he just… he couldn't – stop.
Roxas needed him.
And then… came the hour when he did stop. When – no amount of willpower, no amount of desperation, no amount of love, no matter how whole and complete and shining it was, could keep his body going. It wasn't fuelled by those things. Axel himself, as a disembodied being, could have gone forever, but his flesh just didn't have that kind of stamina.
Axel wasn't even aware of the fact that he'd fallen until – quite a while had passed. The awareness was slow to filter in, that he was no longer taking steps but just… lying on the ground. His cheek was pressed into the dirt, and Roxas was on top of him, crushing him. And though he searched his being, briefly, for any flicker of resolve that would keep him fighting, he found none. There would be no getting up from here.
He closed his eyes, and gave up, at long, long last. Nothing was hurting. No part of him needed attention. He wasn't hungry, or, or thirsty anymore, he wasn't anything. Time passed, his mind growing more distant with every minute, his breaths slower, his heart weaker.
And then, on top of him, Roxas began to move.
His heavy body shifted, a grunt loosing itself from his lips. He placed his hands on the earth, pushed himself up from the redhead's slumped form. There was a moment of silence, sharp blue eyes watching. A finger poked Axel's side, to no reaction. A hand grasped a handful of his hair and lifted his head curiously, to no reaction. The same hand released abruptly, letting his chin slam back down, to no reaction.
"Hmm." The thoughtful noise hung on the air. A minute's deliberation took place, nothing rushed, nothing emotional, before a second small hum was voiced, one of decision this time. There was more movement, the faint rustle of clothing, before strong hands under Axel's arms, lifted him from the ground like he was some kind of child, light and easy to carry, a sense of care in the grasp.
Axel was distantly aware of being pressed to a chest, no warmth radiating from it, but a sense of calm comfort falling over him nonetheless. Roxas was taking him home. If this was death, then he was happy.
For a while, there was nothing. Axel was brought up a level from the fog of his unconsciousness by voices, just a slight exchange: "…No. Let him go."
"Get out of the way. I hear Lucrecia calling you." There was contempt on the air, Roxas' chest rumbling with the words.
There was a pause, then an outburst, "You're not the one he was seeking!"
Axel was adjusted in powerful arms, held closer, no response forthcoming. There was silence, completely and utterly, from Roxas, though from somewhere distant there was the crunch of footsteps for a while, before they, too, fell away into the hush.
Vincent's voice cut the air suddenly, filled with anger, "You're a monster!"
"Tell it to someone with a heart," Roxas muttered under his breath, Axel's soul smiling, able almost to see the roll of his eyes.
Minutes passed peacefully, before he was dropped abruptly, falling from Roxas' chest to the ground, the slightest whisper of a moan sighing from the redhead's lips, though his eyes remained glued shut, as they would remain until the very last breath left his body.
Roxas had other plans. He began slapping the redhead, trying to rouse him. "Come on, come on, this is no time to be sleeping around. Wake up, Axel." An extra sharp smack across the face, with no response, and moments later, a handful of water was splashed over his head, followed by more slapping. Axel's eyes struggled open, his mind shocked into consciousness by the absolute ice of the fluid, coupled with the insistent sting of the abuse. His irises rolled sightlessly, a damp hand clutching his chin painfully and wrenching his face down a little, forcing him to focus on the blurred image above.
The smile that split across his face was beautiful, broken. "Roxas…"
A benevolent look was returned. "You remember his name… how cute!" The blond bent, rubbed their noses together affectionately. "But then, I supposed you would. That's why I look the way I do!" He drew back, stroking his fingers through the long, crimson spikes. "You creatures are all the same," he sighed, contentedly. "Show you a little bit of what you want to see, and you'll kill yourself in a beat of the heart to keep it going. But you…" He tapped Axel's forehead, hard enough to make the man blink. "You chose a different path, didn't you? I've never had anyone go that far to try and rescue me before…"
Green eyes were clouded, glassy, struggling to keep from closing again. "Rox… what…?"
"Aw, and now you're confused… that really is adorable," the blond murmured, a smile tugging at his lips. He bent low, down near the man's ear, saying in a breathy sing-song, "You should be someone's dinner now, silly human. We spirits do little favours like that for the Heartless, since we all have to live together in this little sliver of existence, and it's fun to play with stupid minds… But you fought so hard, I don't know that I can bear the thought of you being eaten up by anyone but me." He nuzzled the side of the redhead's face. "I can look like this for as long as you want me to, Axel. I really, really can…" Blue eyes stopped still over green for a moment, gazing into them intensely. "You tried to save me… I'm not accustomed to that." His gaze grew distant. "When I was alive, Riku… he never, he just…" He blinked, shivered hard, was all smiles an instant later. "But what am I thinking, even saying that name out loud? How many hundreds of years has it been since he died, now?" He let out a pleased hum, returning to nuzzling Axel's throat. "You chase me the way that the idiot chases Lucrecia, and we'll both live long, pleasant lives together. I won't even try and coax you into the labyrinth to end up as some little Heartless' next meal, I promise."
Axel was fading fast, mind incapable of taking in anything that the blond was saying, able only to weakly whisper, eyes slipping shut, "Roxas…"
With a sigh, the boy said, "You're going to keep calling me that, aren't you?" He shrugged. "Well, for as long as we're pretending, you might as well." He shifted his lips beside the man's ear, whispering, "But one day, I'll have you calling me 'Sora'. Just wait and see. One day, you'll be wanting to rescue me, as myself… I won't let you go until you do, by which stage you'll already be all mine…" He straightened again, gazing down with amusement at the rapidly waning redhead. "Look at you. So weak. I have just the cure for it, you know." He wound his fingers into Axel's coat, lifting his feeble form a little, placing a small kiss down on his lips. "Remember that, Axel: Sora." He smirked."Now that we're on a first-name basis… don't go dying on me."
The blond turned, rising to his feet in one fluid motion, hauling the man up as if he weighed nothing at all, feet making no sound as they twisted in the mud of the black lake's shore, and hurled Axel as far in as he could, the redhead vanishing distantly into the murky depths with barely a splash.
Then, rolling up his sleeves, the damned creation wearing Roxas' face waded in after him, unwilling to watch him drown just yet.
Axel was new, after all. One didn't just toss away new toys.
Over the course of the next year, Hollow Bastion emptied out entirely. Rumours exploded and spread of dark little beasts beginning to appear on the edges of the town, while one person after another fell victim to the deforming disease caused by the dark water that every well and spring was producing. People began muttering about damnation, about dreams and nightmares, about voices of the dead calling softly from beyond the grave, tempting them to come find them, about the howls that came from the castle up the hill, Master Biest commonly believed to have lost his mind and perhaps humanity along with it.
The last of the shops were closed down, the homes gradually abandoned; Tifa's bar went dark and stayed dark. Highwind's Aerodynamics caught fire late one night and burned to the ground, taking several streets with it, after the man had started freely dispensing what he called 'home-made holy water' to anyone who would accept. The man himself vanished without a trace, and took with him the last vestiges of Hollow Bastion as a cohesive town. After that, the city was well and truly abandoned, its charred centre smoking gently.
Months passed, followed by years, developing into decades. Only one band of wanderers visited during that time, in the thirty-second year, hungry for anything left behind by one hysterical town's long-ago exodus. What they found was much of the town overrun by wild, black rose stems as thick around as a man's waist, the thorns monstrous, the blooms red like blood on snow. The source of the insane plant life seemed to be the castle that towered over the city, a veritable mesh of thorns stopping anyone from being able to get anywhere near to its heart.
One of the party was cut by a thorn, and died soon afterwards of an undisclosed, non-contagious condition, during which weeping black welts appeared across her body, and, bewilderingly, her pupils narrowed, lengthened, like a demon's, like a cat's. The group chose to stay for one night, but didn't last until dawn, frightened off by howls and moans reverberating down from the castle, as if some kind of beast resided within, trapped by the roses.
It was perhaps another fifty years after this that the town on the other side of the woods, having grown prosperous, its Land of Dragons festival widely famous, began expanding its territory into the forest. Trees were cut, more houses built, and one day, people began getting sick. The water started getting murky, turning black.
Not long after that, one dark, cold night, an ill wind blew. A red-haired man was seen walking the cobbled streets, his brown coat ragged, his hands cupped around his mouth, calling harshly, over and over, "Roxas? Roxas!"
When the startled townsfolk went out to investigate, he was nowhere to be seen. He had vanished into thin air.
The performance repeated itself night after night for nearly a month, by which stage many of the town's inhabitants had started packing up and leaving what could only be a cursed town. One particular family, hoping to be away before dawn, were the only ones to bear witness to the end of this nightly terror, when the man once again went stumbling down the street, passing right in front of them, tears rolling down his face, crying, "Roxas! Where are you?"
From the rooftops, a voice floated down teasingly, "You won't see him unless you address me properly!"
The phantom man clenched shaking fists, rage momentarily tearing his face, banishing all signs of need from his expression. It lasted only briefly, however. As the family watched on, he seemed to – visibly admit defeat. His shoulders slumping, he called mournfully, "Sora."
A blond boy appeared atop one of the empty houses, a sharp grin in place, before simply falling from the highest point. The redhead let out a pained cry, sprinting over to where the blond now lay crumpled on the ground. Weeping quietly, he gathered the boy in his arms, lifted his unresponsive, unconscious body, and staggered back out of town, flashing the watchers one agonised glance as he passed, before disappearing completely, the second he was through the gates.
There were no reappearances of the man after that, but the town emptied anyway. Different routes were formed to various points on the map, and the area was forgotten over time.
No new rumours emerged after this. Not of illness, not of strange men or noises, not of black beings or water, not of roses.
The forest, and its inhabitants, earthly or otherwise, faded once more into obscurity, and this time remained there.