It was immediately obvious the instant you set foot in the Castle that Never Was. The entire building was rife with an air of deep anxiety and concern, even fear; the whole Organization went about their day looking and acting like they were all waiting for the other shoe to drop. The atmosphere throughout the castle was one of a disaster waiting to happen.

A disaster had already happened. A rescue team had disappeared.

Hands-down, Axel was more consumed by anxiety than any of the others; since Xigbar, Demyx, and Zexion had disappeared, he'd bitten his nails bloody and then chewed the bandages off repeatedly. No surprise there - Demyx was one of his best friends - but it didn't help that the one they'd been sent to rescue in the first place was Roxas, his other best friend. Axel didn't do well separated from his friends for long, and now, not knowing when or if he'd ever see either of them again...

Times like this, it's harder than it should be to remember I'm not allowed to drink.

What had happened to them? Where were they? How could all four of them have just - disappeared?

His bedroom door opened suddenly. Even though he knew the odds were very slim, Axel held his breath, hoping against hope that by some miracle his friends had come home - only to be terribly crushed when he saw it was Xaldin. "The Superior's called an emergency meeting," was all the Whirlwind Lancer said.

Axel sighed and stood up heavily, feeling crushed by the entire Organization's collected anxiety. He almost knew what the meeting had to be about - rescuing the rescue team. Or the rescue team was all dead. One or the other. Fear dogging his heels and slowing him down, he stumbled through a portal to his assigned seat, feeling a little sick at the sight of the empty seats next to and across from him. As soon as everyone who could be assembled was assembled, Xemnas started talking with absolutely none of his usual pontificating and lecturing about Kingdom Hearts. "Members of Organization XV," he said without undue ceremony, "we are faced with one of the largest catastrophes in the history of this Organization. Four members - almost a full third of our strength - have disappeared, including our best hope for eventual salvation." There was a slight muttering throughout the room as everyone glanced over at Roxas's chair. Axel bit his lip anxiously, wondering how long Xemnas was going to spend explaining the seriousness of the situation - no shit, it was serious, and Xemnas rarely took less than fifteen minutes to say anything. And for all any of them knew, fifteen minutes could mean four lives, including two Axel would joyfully give his own to save...

"Therefore, all of us here are to search for our missing members, with all due haste and care. All of you have one hour in which to gather any supplies you think may be necessary during this mission. No one will be allowed to remain at the castle. No one. Report back here at the end of one hour."

Every jaw in the meeting room dropped. Not only had Xemnas never gotten to the point so quickly, the entire Organization had never been mobilized on a single mission before, ever - not even when they'd numbered only six. Some of them, like Vexen, barely ever got sent on any missions at all.

Fuck. This is big.

Not like he didn't already know that. All he could do now was hope it would be enough.

As Axel returned to his room to pack, a little Siamese kitten wound around his ankles, mewing pitifully - Demyx's little cat Connie, searching hopelessly for her pet Nobody. Axel's cat Sol was following her around, nibbling comfortingly at her fur, but she seemed to be ignoring him totally - she wanted Demyx and only Demyx. "I'm sorry, girl," Axel said helplessly. "I wish I knew where Demyx was myself...I'm gonna go find him, though; does that make you feel better?"

"Mew," Connie said pitifully, hopping up on Axel's bed and looking at him with pleading blue eyes.

"I miss him too," Axel said soothingly. "That's why we're gonna go get him back." Connie just mewed pathetically as Axel filled both cats' bowls. "Look, I'm sorry. I really have no clue where he is - well, we know what world, just not where in that world. But we're gonna go get him. Okay?" As he went into the bathroom to retrieve his blood glucose monitor, Connie followed him, still looking lost and forlorn. "For the love of Kingdom Hearts, I'm not keeping Demyx in a bathroom drawer, okay?"


"He's not under the sink, either." Axel sighed. "I wish he was...I'd also like to find Roxas under there; actually, he'd fit better. Even Xigbar or Zexion would be nice. But there's no one under the kitchen sink. Except you."


Axel sighed and got down on one knee, closer to level with Connie. "Look, I don't know where Demyx is, got it memorized? I'm not gonna pull him out of my pocket for you to cuddle with. He's not hiding under my bed or in my sock drawer. But - I am going to go find him. I am going to bring him back. Him and Roxas and Xigbar and Zexion. And when I do, you can cuddle with him and eat his snacks and lick his hair all you want. I promise." Connie continued to stare at him for a moment, then slunk away, still looking depressed - well, Axel hadn't quite managed to convince himself either.

Fori threw his head back immediately as they filed through the portal to the world of Angrejar, eyes darting from side to side as if he was expecting an ambush. "Don't mind me, there's just...something freaky here. Before you ask, there's been no blood shed on this spot recently enough that I could tell you whose it is or how it happened. Okay, scratch that - a hawk caught a squirrel here yesterday. But that's not much help, is it?"

Everyone just glared at him. " all means, let us know when you have something useful to say," Xaldin snapped.

Fori glared right back. "There is weird and sick shit going on in this world - is that useful? Trust me, I know sick shit."

Axel bit his lip. By "sick shit", did he mean something actively unholy? They'd heard a rumor that something was a little off with this world, which was why Roxas had been sent to investigate very carefully and come straight home if he got into the faintest hint of trouble...and whatever was "a little off" with this world had managed to make him disappear without a trace...along with Xigbar, and Zexion, and Demyx...he hadn't figured any force in the worlds could catch Xigbar if he didn't want to be caught...and Demyx...oh, God, poor Demyx...

"Five, Fourteen, search for a suitable location in which to set up a base camp within the forest. Under no circumstances are you allowed to approach within sight of the city walls." Axel's attention was sharply jerked back to reality as Xemnas started issuing orders. "Seven, Ten, scout carefully for other people who might be in the area between here and the city walls, whether transients or residents. Especially be on the lookout for military patrols. Avoid being seen as much as possible, and avoid armed confrontation by any means necessary. Eight, Fifteen, once Seven and Ten can confirm the area is clear, scout around the city walls, and attempt to locate a possible source for...anything uncanny. Everyone else, remain within my sight until further notice."

As Lexaeus left with Xanrivash, and Saix left with Luxord, Axel sat down on a fallen log and covered his face with his hands. Most of the others found halfway comfortable places to sit, or at least stand, but Fori kept pacing uncomfortably, obviously set on edge by something about this world. "What the hell is your issue?" Axel snapped eventually.

"Something about this place...reminds me of home."

Everyone turned and looked at him, but of those remaining, only Axel had ever been to the Nexus and was in a position to know what he might be talking about. "All right...what about it reminds you of home?"

"Something in the air...something...something thoroughly evil."

Marluxia raised an eyebrow. "Of course...that is your specialty, isn't it?"

Fori gave him the finger. "Shove it. It's...not demonic, though. It's from some other source."

So odds were his two best friends had been captured by something thoroughly evil that wasn't originally from Hell. That made Axel feel all sorts of better.

As if.

It would have been nice if they'd taken his hearing aids.

Since suddenly being surrounded and dragged off by soldiers, Demyx had been knocked out cold, chained hand and foot, locked in a prison cell so tiny he couldn't lie down flat even cornerwise, and fed a bare starvation diet. He'd either been drugged or enchanted in some way that kept him from actually using his powers, even though he could sense they were there and at full strength. He had no idea what had happened to Xigbar, or where Roxas was, though he heard Zexion's voice every so often. Zexion's voice was the only vaguely encouraging sound he'd heard in he had no idea how many days anymore - almost all he heard were the clanking of his chains, and the footsteps and harsh voices of the guards, and - entirely too often for comfort, as if there was any to be had in this pit - tortured screaming, from not nearly far enough away.

We shouldn't have split up, he thought bleakly, followed by Will they ever find us? Or what happened to us?

"Ah...I hope our guests are still faring well?"

Demyx cringed at the sound of that sultry voice - he'd learned early on to hate it. He didn't even respond to Malenisa's call. Zexion did, but all the sound he made was a weak grunt - Demyx guessed he was much more badly affected by whatever drug or spell the witch had forced on them to block them from using their powers. He stood up with difficulty, fighting the weight of his chains, glaring through the bars of the tiny window in the cell door and wishing he could actually see Zexion. No such luck; they were being kept in two different cells, and all Demyx could see of the world outside this tiny stone-walled chamber was the view from the tiny window and the even tinier flap through which little bowls of thin soup and cups of less-than-pure water were shoved every so often. And the food flap had been carefully designed so as to not let a bit of light through when it was closed.

Was Xigbar in here somewhere too? Or Roxas? He wished he knew...he wished he could get out...

A pair of large, dark eyes with a wicked glint peered up at him through the bars. "A fine evening, little minstrel. Don't you think?" Demyx, who hadn't seen the sky, smelled fresh air, or had so much as a drop of clean water or decent food since his capture, continued to glare silently, wishing he could punch out what little he saw of Malenisa's pretty face. With all the chains, he couldn't even raise his hand far enough, let alone move it quickly enough for a hard punch. "Why so silent, dear bard? Aren't you going to burst into song about how neither chains nor prison walls can hold your spirit captive?"

"Fuck you," Demyx spat. Right then, his spirit felt as caged as the rest of him. Only memories of all the good times he'd spent with Axel and Roxas, and the hope of eventual rescue and more good times to come, kept him sane; that was how he filled his waking hours now, as well as most of his dreams. Of course, many of his dreams now were nightmares - of being hauled away and executed or brutally tortured, of hearing Zexion's - or Xigbar's, or Roxas's - tortured shrieks drifting down the hall, of being bewitched into mindless slavery, of simply rotting in this hellhole until he died without ever seeing the light of day again...

Malenisa only smiled at him, toying idly with a curl of dark hair. Funny; female evil masterminds were supposed to be tall, thin, and inhumanly beautiful. Malenisa was rather short, attractively curvy, and very pretty, but not exactly inhumanly beautiful. "That option is available, should you so would be so convenient to have your powers on call at all hours, and you would make quite a charming Prince-Consort..."

Demyx recoiled. He'd rather have sex with Axel than so much as hug Malenisa, even if joining her meant freedom and wealth and power and everything. Sure, she was attractive - put her in jeans and a sweater and drop her off in Twilight Town, and he'd probably hit on her - but the aura of evil oozing from her made his skin crawl even from the other side of the door. "Do you have a pet goat or something I could marry instead?"

Malenisa chuckled, a rich, lascivious sound that made Demyx shudder. "So that's the way of it...? A shame, that. Your little friend might be more compliant, but I think you'd make a better consort. Very well...if you won't share your power bit by bit, then I daresay you'll sit here and wait until your chance to share it all at once."

Demyx couldn't even raise a hand far enough to give her the finger without running out of chain, and he couldn't be sure that particular gesture had the same meaning in this world anyway. Instead, he glared venomously after her as she turned and strode down the hall, presumably to talk to Zexion - he heard their voices in apparent conversation within a few minutes, though he couldn't make out their words. Sighing to himself, he slumped back down to the ground and curled up as comfortably as he could, which wasn't very, and tried to go to sleep. Normally, he could fall asleep anywhere, anytime, within a matter of minutes, unless he was battling insomnia. This time, however, something Malenisa had said kept gnawing at the back of his mind.

"If you won't share your power bit by'll sit here and wait until your chance to share it all at once..."

He wasn't sure he even wanted to know what she meant by that.

There were worse people to have been sent out with. However, Saix would have been the first to admit that, had he been able to develop such things as preferences, Ten would not have been his favorite Nobody. Too impulsive. Too casual. Too disinclined to take serious matters seriously.

It didn't help that the moon in this world was currently concealed by thick clouds. It gave him the sensation of wandering in a thin fog. He could cope, but he wasn't exactly at his best.

"Ten..." Saix hissed impatiently - though he'd have been the last to admit impatience. "Keep out of sight." He was wandering too far away from cover, and too close to the city.

Ten only shrugged helplessly. "The Superior said to investigate between the forest and the walls," he said in an almost apologetic tone.

"He also ordered us to remain out of sight and not take undue risks," Saix hissed back - if he'd had a heart, he might have been nettled at the idea of Ten acting like he knew their orders better than he did. "And keep your voice down."

"Sorry about that," Ten answered in a softer voice. "But I don't think there will be anyone to find, even a passed-out drunken bum. I suspect the gate is locked after dark, and the odds of a patrol being sent outside the city at this time of night -"

The gate creaked open. Saix could have screamed as a squad of at least ten soldiers marched out. "So much for your precious odds, Ten!"

He should have kept his mouth shut, or at least kept his voice down. At least one of the soldiers heard him, and they quickly headed straight for him and Ten. Saix growled and prepared to summon his claymore, certain the situation was about to end in combat, but every one of the soldiers suddenly froze in their tracks. "That's solved easily enough," Ten said with some satisfaction.

Saix growled under his breath. "Retreating would have been better," he said, purely for the sake of argument - the lack of moonlight was making him increasingly uncomfortable, especially out in the open.

Ten had the brass nerve to chuckle as he circled the frozen soldiers. "Well, all we have to do is get out of their sight, and when I unfreeze them and they look around, they'll decide they went chasing after a shadow and feel a bit embarrassed." He paused suddenly, looking puzzled and troubled. "Um...c-come here," he said hesitantly. "There's something very...I can't put my finger on it, but...something about this one is...very strange."

Saix was growing something close to exasperated, but he circled around until he saw the soldier Ten was talking about. The man looked unremarkable - very unremarkable, in fact. Too unremarkable. A professional soldier in his mid-30's should have picked up at least a few scars, even from shaving nicks, or have some sort of birthmark, or even a freckle or two. This man was so unremarkable and featureless as to be unnatural. "This isn't right...there must be some sort of illusion over him..." Just then, the clouds broke long enough to let the moon shine through... "I don't believe this," Saix hissed as the moonlight pierced straight through the illusion, dispelling it in his eyes - the man behind the bland facade was anything but unremarkable and featureless, and certainly not unscarred. "It's Two..."

Ten's jaw dropped. "You can't be serious!"

Saix growled - granted, Ten most likely couldn't see through the illusion even in the moonlight, but did the man have no sense? "I am serious...unfreeze him. Now. I said he was under an illusion."

Ten frowned, but did as he was told. Two stirred slightly and looked around, a curiously dull expression in his eye. "Who are you?" he asked in a slow, lifeless, almost mechanical voice. "What business do you have outside the city walls after sunset?"

Ten drew back a little, eyes wide. "Well...he sounds like Xigbar, but -"

The change was immediate; Ten's jaw dropped as the illusion fell away completely. Two blinked several times, then shook his head fiercely, pressing a hand to his forehead. "Holy shit..." he muttered. "What the fuck was that? What just happened?" He looked around again, and seemed to recognize the others this time. "Oh...hey...I guess you two are the second rescue team. Well, thanks for that, whatever you just are Demyx and Zexion?" Saix and Ten exchanged significant glances, and Ten shrugged. "Aw, fuck...don't tell me that bitch got her claws into them too..."

"As near as we can figure out, that's exactly the case," Saix said, laying a hand on Two's shoulder and propelling him towards where the rest of the Organization was waiting - quickly, in case whatever magical force Fifteen was sensing managed to unfreeze the genuine soldiers. "Hopefully we can find them as easily..."

Demyx couldn't even muster the willpower and energy to sing to himself. He sat huddled in one corner of his cell, chin on his chest and arms around his ankles, systematically going through every happy memory he had since joining the Organization. He couldn't sleep since his last conversation with Malenisa, doubly so since he'd heard more of those tortured screams - thank the Gods, the voice was unfamiliar - and he had to do something to take his mind off the horror and inescapability of his situation. It was that or succumb to despair - and even then, between all his recollections of birthday parties and lazy mornings and Guitar Hero and that one time when Axel insisted on riding the Whirligig at the Twilight Town Fair even though he knew it would make him throw up, there was always the thought that this is over; I'll never see them again.

They wouldn't leave us here. They'll rescue us. Somehow.

Would it be soon enough, though? Kingdom Hearts knew what had happened to Roxas and Xigbar - had Malenisa killed them already? How long would it be before it was his turn, or Zexion's?

No, he prayed. Let them still be alive. Don't let that bitch have done anything to them.

All of a sudden, he heard footsteps, many of them, coming down the hall at speed. Demyx's breath caught in his throat - this couldn't be good news. Not unless that was the rest of the Organization coming after them, and he had a bad feeling it wasn't. The door of his cell was flung open, and four guardsmen wrestled him to his feet and dragged him out. A few doors down, another four guardsmen were doing the same thing to Zexion - that wasn't fair; Zexion was a lot smaller than he was, and even less likely to fight; they didn't need four men to get him out. It was the first time he'd seen Zexion since before they'd been captured, and he was shocked by what he saw - he looked like they'd barely fed him at all, and he'd been fitted with child-size shackles just so they wouldn't slide off his wrists. They were too tight, and cut into his wrists badly enough to draw blood. What kind of sicko even has child-size shackles on hand? Demyx wondered angrily.

Zexion made eye contact and flinched a bit - presumably Demyx's appearance hadn't improved any either. Just then, Malenisa appeared, her pretty face twisted with fury. "Take this one down the hall and get him ready. I don't care how soon it is, I'll need him," she ordered, gesturing at Demyx and moving closer to Zexion. "I'll put this one somewhere...very safe, then return. Damn them all! I didn't want to rush this!"

Zexion's eyes widened. (Rescue, Nine,) he mouthed - if he could even have been heard over the clatter and babble, he would have been overheard; reading each other's lips was safer. (The others are close. They're coming.)

Demyx shook his head slowly, feeling sick with terror - he knew what had to be awaiting him "down the hall". "Down the hall" was where all the tortured screams came from. (Not for me,) he mouthed back. (Too late for me...)

Zexion's eyes widened. (Demyx!)

(Don't tell the others what happened - tell them it was quick -) And then Demyx was forcefully wrenched around and dragged away, struggling desperately for one last glance behind him, even though he knew he'd never see Zexion in this life again. He fought every last step of the way, and got nothing for his trouble but a lot of scrapes and bruises. Entirely too soon, he was dragged into a cavernous room that couldn't not be a torture chamber - it was rife with the sickening stench of both fresh and rotting blood. Refusing to let shock and horror overwhelm him, Demyx continued to struggle for all he was worth, to no avail; he soon found himself stripped of his clothing and shackled hand and foot to a large wooden table, unable to move his arms or legs even slightly. There he was abandoned, to wait for Malenisa to return from whatever horrors she had planned for Zexion.

A tear rolled down Demyx's cheek as he tried to steel himself for what he knew was coming. Don't let her see you cry, he warned himself. Don't cry. Don't scream. Don't beg for mercy. Now, more than any other time in your life, you have to be brave...

He closed his eyes and let his thoughts drift back to Mardi Gras.

From an objective standpoint, it was probably a good idea for the rest of them to wait to move to the new campsite Lexaeus and Xanrivash had found until Saix and Luxord got back. Axel still wished they could just go somewhere already - he was so sick of just sitting around while his friends were in danger, he could scream. He couldn't help but imagine Demyx and Roxas in the clutches of some indescribably evil person, imprisoned somewhere far from daylight, possibly tortured and enslaved...

"What the fuck, dudes - you brought everyone?"

I did not just hear that voice. I did not just hear that voice.

But since everyone else immediately looked in the direction of the voice, and most of them started walking or running towards it...that kind of argued that he really had heard it. Axel finally turned around - and Saix and Luxord were escorting a very dazed-looking Xigbar into the temporary camp. "Holy shit..." Before he quite knew what he was doing, he was on his feet and hugging Xigbar tightly. "Holy shit!"

Xigbar just stared at him. "Whoa...nice to know you're glad to see me..."

Axel drew back, a little embarrassed. " is nice to know you're back safe...where's the rest of them? Roxas and Demyx and Zexion?"

Xigbar shrugged helplessly. "I dunno. I haven't seen any of 'em in...fuck, I've lost track of time...stupid bitch."

Axel sagged immediately, all the wind taken out of his sails. "Oh...shit...I was hoping they'd found all of you..." He sighed. "Sorry...not that it's not great that you're back, but...I was just hoping for a second that this could be over and everyone could be okay..."

"Ahg-za-Haru - not with someone like that around!"

Now everyone turned to look at Fori. Fori was looking at Xigbar with wide eyes. "I get it now - holy shit! No damn wonder this world seemed so messed-up, with someone like that in charge!"

Xemnas grabbed the little demon by the shoulder. "Fifteen, would you please elaborate?"

Fori nodded, not even seeming to notice the Superior's hand. "She's a blood-path witch!"

That alleviated absolutely no one's confusion. "Who are you talking about?" Axel demanded, at the same time Xigbar asked "What's a blood-path witch?"

Fori rubbed his forehead with the back of his hand. "Approximately as demonic as a human can get without having to trade in their humanity. A blood-path sorcerer is someone who obtains magical power through killing people - slow deaths being more powerful, the younger the better, and preferably those who have natural magical power. Their usual modus operandi involves torturing children and mages to death and extracting power from them - or better yet, child mages."

Axel twitched as an electrical jolt suddenly ran through him. "What's your issue now? It woke him up - what the hell else did you want?" Larxene said from somewhere...directly overhead.

Axel blinked and sat up a little - all of a sudden, he was lying on the ground. He tried to remember how he got there, but all he could come up with was a mental image of Roxas being slowly tortured to death. "Oh, God," he whispered to himself. "No...not Roxas..."

Fori sniffed at Xigbar's clothing. "Well, I can smell the blood of at least four people in whatever spell had been on him, but none of them are familiar."

Xemnas propelled Fori in a different direction, ignoring his squawk of protest. "Very interesting, Fifteen, and good to know, but there are other urgent matters - Seven, Ten, where did you find him?"

Saix and Luxord opened their mouths at the same time, but Saix started talking first, leaving Luxord glaring at him. "He'd been enchanted into obedience, concealed by illusion, and sent out on patrol with a band of soldiers. Impossible to tell whether the...sorceress was deliberately taunting us, laying a trap, or simply had nothing better to do with him at the time."

Xemnas looked intensely grave and thoughtful. "If she was taunting us, or baiting a trap...if she prefers to extract power from the young, it would make sense for her to use the oldest of the four as bait..." He shook his head. "Trap or no trap, we have no choice but to continue. Two, are you fit for duty?"

Xigbar nodded wearily. "Confused as all hell and not all that sure what's going on, but if that bitch is everything Fori makes her out to be, I wouldn't leave a diseased rat in her clutches, let alone friends."

Xemnas nodded. "All right...Five, Fourteen, lead us to the new site. Once we reach light of new information, Eight and Fifteen cannot scout the city walls alone. Five, Seven, Eleven, Twelve, will accompany them. Locate a way into the city, preferably without using your powers - the sorceress may have some way to detect the use of magic."

"You three are dismissed. You - remain with me."

Zexion noted idly that the guard Malenisa hadn't dismissed was easily the youngest of the four - likely even younger than Nine. That wasn't his immediate concern, however. His immediate concern was what is she going to do to me? Just because he'd been hauled into the library and his chains had been removed, he didn't assume his fate was going to be pleasant, or even an improvement on the tiny cell he'd just been dragged out of.

"What is the purpose of this?" he asked - he had to stall her. Give the rescuers a little more time - that had to be why she stormed down in a rage, cursing "them". They must have found Two or Thirteen. Whatever she had in mind for him, it probably wouldn't be fatal - she'd mentioned putting him somewhere "very safe", probably some sort of magical storage - but he had to buy time for Nine - because as soon as she was done with him - maybe, if he stalled her long enough, even if he ended up in some sort of magical stasis anyway, maybe Nine would have already been rescued by the time she was finished...because whatever she had planned for Nine...once she was done with him, it was extremely likely that there would be nothing left to rescue.

Malenisa rose to the bait. "I don't need both of you right now - and if this gets too much further, I may be forced to leave and not be able to bring you along - so I will make very sure that you will neither die nor leave this room until I can make use of you."

"What sort of use? What do you need the others for? And why don't you need me yet?" Every second he kept her talking, the rescuers had one more second to act.

Malenisa's dark eyes narrowed. "Glutting myself would be stupid and wasteful, but I have something...very special in mind for your friends. Let's leave it at that. You'll find out what sort of use when you're put to it."

"Friends? There were only two of us." It was a slim hope, but maybe she'd decide whoever else she had - Two or Thirteen or both - didn't have anything to do with him and Nine.

"There were four of you," Malenisa spat. "And more, I realize now. How many of you are there?"

If she was doing the asking, that was better and better. Zexion shook his head. "Only four."

Malenisa slapped him, hard enough that the rings on her fingers left bleeding scratches on his cheek. "You called the other one Nine. There are at least that many."

Dammit. He'd hoped no one had noticed that or picked up on its implications. Zexion sighed and slouched, as if defeated. "There are five more who will be coming."

Malenisa's slit-eyed glare was starting to remind him of a panther playing with its food. "Your math is too neat. The numbers add up too perfectly. I find it hard to believe your friend doesn't outrank the boy. How many of you are there?"

Oh, damn the whole ridiculous world to Hell. She did have Thirteen. "There are only nine of us," Zexion lied, wishing he could use even a tiny bit of his powers - without an illusion to help him, he wasn't much of a liar. "The boy is Number Eight. We're ranked in order of when we joined, not by age or responsibility."

Malenisa still looked tempted to tear him limb from limb. "Very well then - what number are you?"

"Six." At least he didn't have to lie about that.

"And the old man?"

Oh no...she had caught Two as well. The situation couldn't get much worse...well, it could. There could be no hope of rescue, or knowledge that Two or Thirteen or both had probably been rescued. "Two."

Malenisa continued to glare at him for several moments, then gestured at the guard. Zexion gulped involuntarily - if he didn't do something else, he'd bought all the time he could - and all of a sudden, Malenisa plunged a dagger into the guard's shoulder. Zexion cried out involuntarily, and tried to scramble away - but his feet were suddenly frozen to the floor. He couldn't move at all below the waist. Thin red lines were seeping from the injured guard to Malenisa, and from Malenisa to Zexion's legs..."I don't believe a word you've said so far," Malenisa said in an almost casual voice as she dragged the dagger down the guard's back. The man's mouth was wide open in a silent scream - she must have enchanted his voice away. The red lines were intensifying, and small red crystals were starting to grow around Zexion's feet.

"What are you doing?" Zexion choked. An instant later, he'd lost his own voice. He was out of time.

Malenisa plunged the dagger into the guard's other shoulder and dragged it down, and the crystals grew to encase Zexion's feet and ankles. "Keeping you very safe until your friends arrive - all of them."

Getting on the other side of the city walls had been so ridiculously easy Axel was waiting for the other shoe to drop. Finding a critically weak spot in the seemingly-solid wall was child's play for Lexaeus, and Xanrivash was an extraordinary climber - she could scurry up the slick marble walls in the Castle that Never Was without a problem; scaling the old stone city wall must have been as easy as walking down a road for her. Once over the wall, she'd stolen a hammer and chisel from somewhere and started working at the weak spot until first Fori, then Axel, then Larxene could crawl through the hole she made and help her out. Using their own robes to muffle the sound they made, they'd managed to enlarge the hole enough for even Lexaeus to crawl through.

"This would have been easier if one of us had simply made a portal," Marluxia complained as he dusted himself off. "Not to mention quicker - it must be getting close to sunrise."

"Stuff it," Axel said automatically. Saix glared at both of them, and Lexaeus gave Marluxia a look that clearly said "I know you can think, so try it next time." "The Superior said no magic."

Marluxia suddenly had a deer-in-the-headlights look. "Making a portal takes hardly any power at all," he protested weakly.

Saix gave him the evil eye. "Remember what Fifteen may be the oldest of all of us, but by elven standards, you're barely full-grown."

While Axel wondered what the hell that meant, Fori had his head thrown back and was sniffing the air with a note of urgency. His black eyes were wide and gleaming. "She's up to something," he said in a low voice. "She's...she's gone to work on someone." His gaze eventually locked on the castle. "...Shit."

The bottom dropped out of Axel's stomach. "Who?" he asked weakly.

Fori shook his head. "I don't know. I can't tell from here. I hope to hell it's a stranger."

Lexaeus shook his head. "We need to hurry. Even if it's a stranger this time..." He didn't need to say any more. None of them wanted to think about the possibility that it wouldn't be a stranger next time.

"What the hell is she even doing?" Axel felt compelled to ask.

Fori shrugged helplessly. "How the fuck should I know? Torturing people to death for shits and giggles isn't really in my line, okay? I go for quick and easy. But some demons are sicker than others..." His gaze wandered back to the castle. "And some people are even sicker than demons."

"All of you. We need to move. Keep out of sight, and be wary. And stay together." None of them had the nerve to argue with Lexaeus. They all stood up, dusted themselves off, and started moving in the general direction of the castle. On impulse, Axel grabbed the hammer and chisel.

As they approached the castle, Fori was shaking and tossing his head, as though there were dozens of flies pestering him nonstop. "Whas the matter with you?" Xanrivash hissed.

"What she's doing," Fori hissed back. "Fuck, she's as bad as some of the Dark Oppressors..." He grimaced. "One good thing. I can tell now it's no one we know. Light a damn fire, why don't ya, bitch..." He shook his head again. "That's just beyond...well, hell. Right now, though, I don't think she'd be able to tell if we all pulled out our weapons and started ransacking the town. I don't think she can sense any magic but her own and whatever she's dragging out of the poor bastard she's working over."

Despite what Fori said, none of them dared to use a portal as a shortcut; they all walked as quickly and stealthily as they could until they reached the walls surrounding the castle. Xanrivash stared bleakly at them - they were as old and rough as the city walls, and should have been just as easy to climb, but the city walls hadn't been studded with iron spikes and broken glass. "I'm not climbing this," she said finally. "Not without much sturdier gloves."

Larxene looked up at the top of the wall, which was lined with iron spikes four times as long as the ones set in the walls. "Oh, gee, I really don't know if I want to try jumping that...I've heard that getting your ass impaled kind of sucks...anyone got any clever ideas? I mean, aside from hoping you can actually make a portal to the other side of that wall, and not into the guardroom or torture chamber or somewhere equally pleasant?"

Thick, woody vines started shooting up the wall, heedless of the iron and glass. Marluxia looked incredibly smug. "Do you think you might possibly be able to climb those, little ranger?" Luckily for him, Saix was between him and Xanrivash. Xanrivash still bared her fangs at him threateningly as she started clambering up the vines.

Roxas struggled for all he was worth, kicking and fighting the guards every step of the way as he was led down the stairs. He expected the entire time that one of the guards would finally get sick of his performance and knock him flat, but they never did - they treated him with exaggerated deference and care, especially considering how his arms were tied behind him and there was a thick leather gag in his mouth. But then, that was how he'd been treated his entire captivity - like an honored guest who just had to be locked up and drugged up for his own good. He couldn't work out the point of that to save his life, unless that witch Malenisa had needed him completely unharmed and undamaged for some sinister purpose. The fact that he was finally being hauled out of the luxurious bedroom he'd been imprisoned in suggested that whatever Malenisa's sinister purpose was, it was about to be carried out, and it didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out it would probably end badly for Roxas. Out of desperation, he tried to wrench himself away from the guards and fling himself headfirst down the stairs, to no avail.

Why hadn't anyone ever come to rescue him? Would they ever find out what had happened? Axel and Demyx must have been going insane by now; even if, for some inexplicable reason, there was no official rescue mission, they'd mount one of their own...

Malenisa intercepted them outside a large wooden door, smiling wickedly as she saw Roxas. "Don't fret, child," she said in a tone that came across as a twisted imitation of soothing. "Once this is over, I know you'll be nothing but happy here..."

So she had brainwashing or something in mind. Roxas redoubled his efforts to get away by any means necessary, to no avail. The wooden door was swung open, and he was forced into the cavernous room beyond. There was someone else in the room already, a young man lying naked on a table, arms and legs spread-eagled and shackled down so he couldn't move them at all - and Roxas screamed behind his gag.

Demyx's eyes clouded with tears of recognition. Be brave, Roxas, he signed as best he could with his arms shackled at the wrist. Roxas could barely see him sign through his own tears - he felt sick to his stomach. There had been a rescue mission, like he knew there had to be, but Malenisa had captured the rescuers as well. How many had been sent? What had happened to them? What was this bitch going to do to Demyx? What was she going to do to him?

Demyx had told him to be brave. He couldn't let himself cry.

Malenisa stroked Roxas's hair lightly, a sick mockery of what Axel did so often to reassure him. "Don't worry about him, pet," she purred. "You'll see that all will be well soon enough..." Roxas snarled and started working on gnawing through the gag - it was the only thing left he could think of.

"So is this who you've picked as your Prince-Consort?" Demyx asked defiantly, eyes locked on Malenisa. "Damn, you like 'em young, don't you?"

Malenisa's smile started to look a little more forced. "I have something else in mind for this boy," she said, patting Roxas's head in a way that was probably supposed to be protective. "If you two know each other as well as you seem to, you might have some idea what...but don't worry, I'll take excellent care of him."

"Same way you're taking care of me? Same way you took care of Zexion?" Demyx demanded, and Roxas felt even sicker.

Malenisa's eyes narrowed. "Trust me when I tell you no harm will come to your little friend here...but thank you for the reminder. I should be getting to work already." She glared down at Demyx, fondling his left hand thoughtfully. "Hmm...where should I begin...I usually begin at the shoulders and work my way down the arms, just for efficacy, but given that you're a musician by trade..." She smiled suddenly. "I do believe I'll start with your hands." A knife suddenly emerged from her sleeve and slashed off the tip of Demyx's little finger. Demyx's eyes bulged, but he didn't make a sound. Roxas threw up behind his gag. As vomit ran down his chin and dripped onto his clothing, Malenisa turned and glared at him for a moment. By the time she turned back to Demyx, Demyx's hands were balled up into fists, protecting his remaining fingers. "So that's the way of it..."

Malenisa gestured to her guards, and one of them quickly fetched her a bucket with a ladle, while another offered a lighted torch. Looking frustrated, Malenisa ladled whatever was in the bucket over Demyx's hands, one by one, then held the torch to them. Whatever had been in the bucket caught fire almost immediately. Demyx's eyes bulged even wider, and he bit through his lip, but he still didn't scream. Once the fire burned itself out, his hands were hideously blistered and even charred black in spots, but he still mustered a look of defiance; Roxas could only wish he could be that brave. He felt like he was going to be sick again. "Just rubbing it in, or what?" Demyx asked challengingly.

"Silence," Malenisa demanded, as thin red tendrils started reaching towards her from Demyx's charred hands. As Roxas watched, the tendrils started snaking from her towards him - wrapping around his head - burrowing into him - and - and -

What was he getting all bent out of shape over?

Roxas tried to shake away that thought. Demyx was his best friend, and this bitch - this demoness with a human face - was torturing him - she was probably going to torture him to death while he watched -

The knife slid across Demyx's arm, peeling the skin away from his flesh. Demyx gritted his teeth and squeezed his eyes shut, still refusing to make a sound, but though defiance still glinted in his eyes, he no longer seemed to have the grit for defiant remarks. More red tendrils flowed out, from Demyx to Malenisa to Roxas - well, no. Demyx wasn't his best friend. One of his best friends - that was more accurate. But not the best. She repeated the treatment on Demyx's other arm - well, actually, Demyx was more Axel's friend than Roxas's. They were friends, sure, but mostly because Axel was friends with both of them first.

Roxas shook his head fiercely, trying to call up memories of sitar lessons and sign language lessons and late dinners of exotic cuisine that Demyx only cooked for his closest friends. Demyx was his best friend, not just a friend-of-a-friend...he was practically a brother to him, same as Axel...

Malenisa's knife moved down to Demyx's legs, skillfully flaying him alive. Kingdom Hearts, Demyx was so brave, not to make a sound - not to scream, not to cry, not to beg for mercy...then again, Axel and Demyx had always been closer to each other than either of them had ever been to Roxas. It stood to reason; they'd known each other for years before Roxas's arrival. They were still his friends, just...maybe not all that close.

No. That wasn't true. She had to be putting some sort of spell on him, to make him stop caring about Demyx's fate. Besides, even if he was just an ordinary friend, this bitch was torturing him - she was skinning him alive...

The knife moved back up to Demyx's armpit, and started peeling the skin away from his chest. Come to think of it, Roxas really didn't have any very close friends with the Organization. Not even Namine, though that wasn't exactly their faults. As more and more skin was peeled away, he started to wonder - did he even really know Demyx that well? They hung out a lot, but they really weren't close...

No! That's not true! It's not! he screamed at himself.

Malenisa smiled to herself as she applied more of that flammable liquid from the bucket to Demyx's feet and ignited it, filling the room with the scent of charred flesh. Demyx was still silent as ever, but the defiance was gone - his face was a solid mask of agony. Roxas had to think for a moment - his name was Demyx, right? He knew they'd met before, he just couldn't remember where...he didn't know the guy very well, after all...and what about that other guy, what was his name? Axel? He could remember he had red hair, but that was pretty much it...

This is wrong, Roxas warned himself sternly. You should know them. You should know them...

Malenisa reached under the table and produced a silver hammer. She smashed it into Demyx's leg, and there was the unmistakable sound of breaking bones. Roxas decided it really wasn't worth his while to keep convincing himself to care about this guy, or anyone else in the group he'd been hanging out with. It would be a much better idea to stick with Malenisa - after all, she'd promised to take care of him...this guy was really nervy, though, whoever he was; he hadn't made a sound or shed a tear yet...

The stranger on the table looked Roxas in the eyes for a moment. A tear rolled slowly down his face, but Roxas could not have cared less.

That maddening stench of blood that had suddenly pervaded the entire city, at least as far as Fori could tell, had finally disappeared - the blood witch must have finished off whoever she'd been torturing. Finally able to concentrate, he scrambled up the vines and over the wall to join Xanrivash and Larxene, waited for everyone else to come over the wall, made it about halfway across the castle grounds with the rest of them - and the stench returned with a vengeance. He stopped in his tracks.

Axel poked him in the back, none too gently. "What's your issue, witch put a spell on you?"

Fori didn't even pay attention to the wiseass. He sniffed at the air, hoping he wasn't smelling what he thought he was smelling... "Bloody hellfire," he whispered under his breath.

Now everybody froze, which Fori thought was sensible. "What do you sense?" Lexaeus asked softly.

Fori dropped to his hands and knees - his instinctive reaction to danger from an unknown source. Either his nose was seriously fucked up, or he was smelling approximately the last thing he wanted to smell... "Demyx. She's working on Demyx."

Axel fell to his knees, hiding his face in his hands. Saix grabbed him by the shoulders and yanked him back upright. "No time, Eight. Now is when we need to hurry, not stop." Axel nodded and staggered forward with the rest of them, looking like someone had just torn his guts out. "Fifteen - inside the castle?"

"Well, duh. But damned if I can tell you where inside the castle just now. Maybe if I was inside the castle too -" And all of a sudden, everyone was looking for a convenient doorway or low window, especially Axel. Xanrivash, whose definition of a "convenient" window was much broader than anyone else's, started climbing up the wall of the castle towards a third-story window - apparently, the walls of the castle itself weren't made of sharp edges. Because the scent of blood had him too antsy to focus on finding a way into the castle, Fori was the only one who was actually watching her, and had the privilege of being the only one in the entire Organization to actually see her fall off a wall. She managed to catch herself somewhere around the second story, but still, that was a damn rare sight. "So what happened to you?" he asked after she climbed all the way back down. "Did you actually lose your grip? Is that possible?"

She didn't even bother to bare her fangs at him. "I've found Zession."

That statement took a lot longer than it should have to get through. "...What?"

Now she looked tempted to smack him. "Up there," she said, jabbing a finger at the window she'd crawled up to. "The room is unguarded, but..."

Fori looked around at everyone else. "'Ey! You all hear that?" he said, pitching his voice to carry much further than it usually did.

Well, he got everyone's attention; everyone was glaring at him. " you want to be overheard?" Lexaeus asked, looking exasperated.

Fori just pointed at Xanrivash, who was on her way back up the wall. "She found Zexion."

Now everyone was staring at her. "That's very damn nice of her, but how are the rest of us supposed to get up there?" Larxene remarked as Xanrivash disappeared through the window.

Fori didn't even turn around and look as - going by the sounds behind him - a portal opened almost directly on top of Axel. "I think you have your answer." Smirking to himself, he walked straight through the portal.

The library he found himself in absolutely reeked of blood - the blood of whoever he'd first sensed being tortured. In fact, that was presumably his mangled body pitched in the corner. The giant red crystal standing in the middle of the floor was a hell of a lot more interesting, though - Zexion was trapped inside it, his face frozen in an expression of terror. Fori stared at him for a very long time, and tapped a finger against the crystal experimentally - no reaction from inside, not like he'd really expected one. "Well, I'll still give you credit for finding him; now how do we get him home?"

By now, everyone else had come through the portal and was gathered around the crystal, except for Xanrivash, who had her ear pressed to the door. "There must be some way to bust that open..." Axel said, digging out the hammer and chisel he'd salvaged from the wall excavation. After five minutes of work, all he'd accomplished was wrecking the chisel. "Okay, there must be some way to bust that open, and that ain't it."

Marluxia shoved him aside. "Let me..." Given Axel's emotional state, and the fact that he and Marluxia got along like two big dogs in a small closet at the best of times, that wasn't a great idea; Axel just shoved right back, and the two of them ended up in a shoving match. It was highly entertaining, at least until Saix forced them apart and dragged them to separate corners. He was the next to try his luck, and managed to seriously blunt his claymore without so much as chipping the crystal.

"This may not have occurred to any of you yet, but brute force isn't gonna get us anywhere..." Fori said distantly, focused on the crystal itself instead of its prisoner. It was definitely giving off odd vibes...familiar vibes...the crystal was red because nearly all the blood in a man's body was tied into its creation...just maybe, if he was careful, he could...

"Someone's coming," Xanrivash said sharply, jumping to her feet and summoning her bow. "A dozen or more. Down the hall."

Everyone else immediately conjured their weapons - except Saix, who couldn't do all that much with his right now and could fight just as well barehanded anyway, and Fori, who seemed for all intents and purposes to be every bit as frozen as Zexion. Axel gave him a kick in the shin. "Would you fuckin' move, runt?!"

Fori unfroze long enough to flip him off. "I'm trying to figure out how to get this thing open."

"Get it open? What, just by staring at it? Are you -"

"Eight!" Axel growled under his breath and went back to waiting at the door with the rest. After a few minutes, the danger seemed to pass, and everyone else relaxed...

"I think I got it," Fori said to everyone's surprise, including his own. "It's not all made out of blood, but I think if I can undo the blood part, it'll just be an ordinary magical hardness or anything...easier to just bust open...gimme a few. This is gonna be one hell of a trick."

Bam! Bam! Bam! "Who's in there? Open up!"

"Bad sign. That's a bad sign." Fori hid behind the crystal as someone continued to batter at the door. Axel gave him the finger, but dammit, he really needed to focus on the task at hand...and hope he wouldn't get hacked to ribbons while he was at it...

"Fuck this shit. Just let me out of here. I'll deal with the motherfuckers." Wonderful. Axel had suddenly developed suicidal tendencies. Well, Fori wished him all the luck in the worlds.

"Eight, you can't possibly -" The door swung open with a loud creak, someone screamed, and there was the immediate smell of burned flesh. Clearly, Axel damn well could. Fori went back to ignoring them and focused on the crystal again, trying to unravel the tangles of blood magic wound into it. He'd rather be working with raw blood, but oh well, he didn't get to pick. More footsteps came up the corridor, Axel let out a howl of rage - Fori set his hands on the crystal and focused hard - soon, thin lines of blood started to seep from the crystal and down his fingers - there was more of that familiar burned-flesh smell - the crystal was starting to become a tiny bit paler - and Axel screamed. The room suddenly smelled even more intensely of blood. Fori did his level best to ignore it - he liked Zexion better then Axel anyway.

"Fifteen! Get over here!"

"Leave him, Seven..." Someone very large suddenly towered over Fori - either Lexaeus had figured out what he was doing and was guarding him, or Saix was ignoring Lexaeus's command to leave him alone.

Suddenly, the task of picking out the blood magic from the crystal became that much easier. "Thanks..."

"You seemed to need help." Lightning sizzled from the direction of the doorway. The crystal's color started to deepen again, but not overall - where Lexaeus's hands were, it had gone completely clear. Now the blood was practically forcing itself out with very little of Fori's help.

All to the good. There was just so much of it.

"Let me up! It's not that bad!"

"Assel, grow some sense. You can't stand on that leg."

The clear part of the crystal was slowly growing, and the red part was growing paler again. The room was starting to smell kind of like ozone. "Shit - how goddamn many of them are there?"

"Eleven, how quickly can you create some sort of barrier? We need more time!"

"Just give me a little breathing space -"

Shit, this bitch was devious. The tangle only became harder to pick out as he went along. Fori tried to hurry, but hurrying too much would tangle it all up even worse, maybe even waste all the effort he'd made so far - and there was another scream of pain from the doorway. "Larxene!"

"Fuck...needed that like I needed a hole in the head..."

"That could have been a hole in your head. Sit down. I'll take over."

Some of the Organization had an easier time using their element when they had their weapon in hand. In Fori's case, that would be on hand, if only he was one of them. All his claws did was cut people up and get in the way when he needed his hands free.

Could this job go any slower? Fori tried to focus himself completely on unraveling the blood magic - fuck, he really wished Lexaeus would work harder on forcing it out of the crystal - the clear part was growing bigger, and the red part was growing paler, but not fast enough - there was a grunt of pain from the doorway, not a scream this time, and something heavy hit the floor.

"Focus on the crystal, Fifteen, not the door," Lexaeus said in a low voice. "You're closer than you think."

It was just getting so hard to focus...there was too much left to do...

"There's your breathing space, you ass! Use it before any more come through!"

Focus on the crystal, not on the door. The crystal, not the door. Stop what you're doing, and everything you've already done, you'll have to do over again...

Fori blinked. All of a sudden, or so it seemed, there was only a tiny red patch left. A few moments' effort, that felt so much longer than it actually was, and the entire crystal was clear. "All right...think I'm done..." He stood up, took a few shaky steps back, and fell flat on his ass. Lexaeus also took a few steps back, summoned his tomahawk, and swung it.

Suddenly, the crystal was reduced to thousands of transparent shards. Zexion was lying in the middle of them, completely still. Slowly, very slowly, he picked himself up off the ground and looked around. "Thank you," he said in a weak voice as Lexaeus helped him into a chair.

"Anytime...just don't make me do that again..." Fori picked himself up shakily and stumbled towards the door to evaluate the casualties. Saix seemed the worst injured - he'd taken a bad slash to his chest, and was barely conscious. Hopefully, he still had the energy to heal everybody...

"Where's Demyx?" Zexion asked suddenly.

Fori nearly choked - in all the stress of trying to undo the crystal's magic and free Zexion, he'd just about forgotten the whole reason they'd been so desperate to break into the castle. He sniffed the air desperately, trying to pick out all the different blood-scents - there was Axel, Larxene, Saix, the dead guy in the corner - but as soon as he caught Demyx's blood-scent, it vanished. Try as he might, he couldn't catch it again.

There was only one thing that could mean. "...It's too late," he said slowly. "She's done with him."

The only sound that broke the resulting silence was Axel's broken cry of grief.

While his friends were fighting in the library, Demyx was just waiting for the pain to end. He had no idea how long he'd been on this table - it felt like an eternity, and one spent in the worst Hell imaginable - and in that time, he'd been skinned, disemboweled, set on fire repeatedly, had parts of his fingers and toes chopped off, had bones smashed with a of the very few parts of his mind that wasn't overwhelmed with pain was half-wondering if she was going to castrate him too, or put his eyes out, or maybe cut his ears off. Wouldn't that be ironic.

At least he hadn't started screaming or begging for mercy yet. Of course, he barely had the strength left to draw breath.

The look in Roxas's eyes was the only thing that could distract him for even an instant. Too bad the physical agony was preferable to seeing that - not blankness; there was active thinking going behind those blue eyes yet. But the utter lack of recognition, the utter lack of Roxas suddenly didn't know who he was and didn't care what he was going through...if anything, he looked interested and appreciative in the way Malenisa was torturing him to death...

His eyes locked on Malenisa's for a moment. "There's no Hell bad enough for the likes of you," he whispered.

Malenisa just smirked and slid her dagger into his hip; he could feel it grating along the bone as she cut the muscles away. Fuck, she'd moved on to butchering him. Maybe she was going to take his whole leg off so he'd bleed to death. "I'm afraid, little minstrel, they're all afraid I'll take over. And that, in a nutshell, is the key to immortality."

Demyx gritted his teeth as she repeated the treatment with his other hip. No, she wasn't removing his legs, at least not yet; she didn't even have the decency to sever any major nerves and kill the pain. "I'd rather...die like this...than live like that..."

"Brave words," Malenisa snapped. She took a couple steps towards his feet - and there was another sudden, intense, throbbing pain in his right foot. That was probably another toe. How many was that now? Did he still have fifteen intact digits? Did he even want to know? Since he was going to die shackled to this table, in mind-boggling pain, did it even matter? Did anything matter?

Demyx struggled to recall the happy thoughts that had sustained him through his imprisonment, to no avail. With his mind clouded by agony, he could barely even recall the faces of most of the Organization. The only one he could recall - besides Roxas's, which was right in front of him - was Axel's...

I hope Axel never find out what happened...bad enough that Roxas and I disappear...but if he knew that I'd been tortured to death so some sick bitch could brainwash Roxas...

Malenisa slid her dagger into his side, expertly avoiding all major nerves, blood vessels, and vital organs while still causing the maximum amount of pain, and Demyx's mind was jerked sharply back to the here-and-now. He'd bitten his lip and tongue so often his mouth was full of blood, but he still refused to scream. As she moved to the other side and slid the dagger in again, he bit the end of his tongue off completely - just one more source of pain; he barely noticed it over all the agony that was already overwhelming him.

Give it up...let go...let it end...

As the silver hammer came out again, and came down with incredible force and accuracy to shatter his cheekbones - ah, Gods, he'd been waiting for this, she'd finally started on his face, his eyes were probably next - Demyx realized how appealing that thought just let go...drift away from this sink into the darkness, and rest... appealing as the thought of his only possible escape might be, he still didn't want to give up...not yet... "What else are you going to do to me, bitch?" he whispered, not caring how weak his voice was.

Malenisa grinned at him. "What a stubborn bastard you are...don't you wish now you'd accepted my offer?"

Demyx hissed in pain as she cracked the hammer against his exposed ribs - probably literally exposed. He could actually hear one or two break. "Rather...neuter...myself..."

Malenisa sneered. "We'll save that for last...normally I save the ears for last, so my subjects can hear themselves scream right to the very end, but you're too busy being brave to scream, and you can't even hear all that case you were ever curious, that's why I left those interesting little devices on your ears. Never underestimate the power of sound to cause pain." She smirked. "Your eyes, on the other can't see what I'm doing very well anyway, can you..." Demyx's eyes were suddenly fastened on the knife as it came closer, knowing that bloodstained blade would be the last thing he ever saw.

There's nothing to be afraid of. A little more pain doesn't matter. Before long, it will be gone. Before long, you'll be free...

The knife, and Malenisa, suddenly jerked back as if she'd been punched. "What the hell..." It seemed to take her a few moments to regain her orientation. "Damn it all...they're too close! I thought that would balk them for ages!" Even though he knew he was dying, a tiny flicker of hope flared where Demyx's heart should be - it had to be the rest of the Organization, come to rescue him and Roxas, or at least Roxas, and they'd escaped from whatever nasty trap she'd set for them. Malenisa glared down at him, as if she knew what was on his mind. "And you still have a lot of life and power left in you...damn you..."

The knife flashed red briefly as it plunged into Demyx's chest. He had just enough time to realize it didn't hurt before everything went dark.

Axel couldn't have cared less if Fori had the energy left over to heal his injured leg or not. He couldn't have cared much less if he bled to death. The rescue had failed. He was never going to see Demyx again. The fucking bitch had tortured him to death, practically under their noses, while they were stuck in the fucking library trying to free Zexion.

If only they'd been faster. If only those fucking guards hadn't caught them and pinned them down. If only Fori and Lexaeus could have destroyed the crystal faster. Maybe, just maybe, they could have saved him.

Did he cry? Did he scream? Did he beg for mercy, or try to buy his life somehow? Axel couldn't see any of that; he preferred to think Demyx had drawn on that incredible reserve of strength deep inside himself and taken his torment without a word of complaint. He wanted his gentle friend to have died a hero.

No. He wanted Demyx to still be alive.

"Why Demyx?!" he shouted suddenly. "Why him, Goddamnit?! He wouldn't hurt a fucking fly if you paid him!"

Dead silence. No one even looked at him. "Probably because he was the youngest left," Fori muttered eventually in a barely audible voice. Only his injured leg kept Axel from running over and throwing himself out the window - youngest left? That would mean...Roxas...she'd already...oh, God...both of was a should have been him...he'd go through any Hell he had to to save his friends, but...they'd both been put through Hell...when he couldn't save them...tortured to death, while the whole Organization was scrambling to save them...

Why couldn't it have been me?!

Zexion slowly raised his head off the table he was sitting at. "She said...she had a special use for my friends...I think only Nine was in the dungeon with me...she may be keeping Two and Thirteen elsewhere..."

Lexaeus rested a giant hand on Zexion's shoulder. "We've already found Xigbar. He's safe with the others."

"Thank Kingdom Hearts..." Zexion murmured weakly. "I tried to buy time for Nine...but she acted too quickly..."

"You may have bought time for Thirteen," Saix said gruffly. "Fifteen?"

Fori shook his head slowly as he dragged himself over to fix Axel's leg. He looked as drained as Zexion. "Can't smell him." Axel tried to stand up immediately - if she hadn't started working on Roxas yet, if Fori couldn't smell his blood being shed, maybe, just maybe, there was still time - "Would you hold the hell still, you jackass?!"

With ill grace, Axel held still long enough for Fori to at least seal the injury, but as soon as it stopped bleeding, he was tearing out of the library, pausing just long enough to burn through Marluxia's thorn hedge - it was easier than getting him to get rid of it. He tore recklessly through the castle, up halls and down stairs, not paying any particular attention to where he went and running into no few dead ends - only pure luck kept him from running straight into any more guards, and that luck on the guards' parts. Eventually, he found himself in front of a large wooden door, jerking it open just because the sadistic bitch could be keeping Roxas anywhere, and he had to look everywhere.

The stench in there had him staggering right back out the door to vomit. Ugh, the place reeked so horribly of blood, he couldn't stomach even the thought of going back in there...

Except that had to be the torture chamber. That had to be where Demyx...

Stubbornly, Axel reentered the room and stayed inside, even though the awful stench made him throw up everything in his stomach. When his stomach quit heaving and the stench didn't seem so unbearable anymore, he summoned a fire in his hand, intending to pay what last respects he could to his friend. The sight of a mutilated body still shackled to a table, a knife thrust into its chest and exposed guts protruding from its abdomen, made his stomach heave again, even though there was nothing left to bring up...wait...that...oh, God, it couldn't be...

"Demyx," Axel whispered, racing to his friend's side. A big bucket of something ignited as he shook the flame away from his hand, but he couldn't have cared less, even about the illumination. "Demyx...Demyx, how could she..." Axel rested his forehead against his deceased friend's, gently stroking his battered face. "How could anyone...oh, God, Demyx...I'm so sorry...why...why did it have to end like this...Demyx..." He kissed Demyx's forehead gently, barely able to speak; his voice was choked with sobs. "You didn't deserve this...oh, Demyx..."

At that instant, Axel was forcefully reminded that miracles could happen, even for Nobodies. "Axel..." Axel stopped breathing, not sure he'd actually heard that faint voice. Demyx's eyes slowly flickered open and met his. ""

Axel felt like his chest was going to explode. "It doesn't matter," he choked. "I'm not gonna let you go. Just stay with me...we'll get you out of'll be okay..."

Inexplicably, Demyx gave him a weak smile. "Thought I'd never see you again...can't be dreaming...hurts too much..."

"I was sure you were dead," Axel whispered fervently, not daring to look at what had been done to Demyx's body. He couldn't bear the thought of Demyx passing away now, not while he was right there holding his head and talking to him...he had to live...

"Axel..." Demyx whispered softly.

"Just stay with me..." Axel repeated. "The others will be here soon...we found Xigbar and Zexion...they're safe...we'll get you out of here too...she'll never hurt you again..."

Demyx took a deep breath, gritting his teeth in pain. "Ax...she has Roxas...put a spell on him..."

Axel felt sick again, but tried not to let Demyx see it. "We'll find him. Don't worry. We won't let that bitch keep him forever. He's our little brother."

"He's all whatever she says..."

Axel fought not to cry, forcing himself to recall what Saix and Luxord had said - Xigbar had been under some sort of spell when they'd found him, that kept him from recognizing them or acting like himself... "She did the same thing to Xigbar, and we managed to break the spell. We'll find him. We'll chase them to Hell and back if we have to, but we'll find him."

Axel suddenly heard someone just outside the door being violently sick. Turning to look, he saw Zexion bent almost double, puking his guts out - probably from the smell. Even Saix was covering his nose with his sleeve; no one else was getting anywhere close to the door. "Would one of you suck it up and get in here?" Axel yelled desperately.

Fori, who obviously wasn't bothered overmuch by the smell of blood, was the first to take him up on his offer. "Oh...damn...I thought that guy in the library got it bad..." Demyx somehow mustered just enough strength to flip Fori the bird. "Hey, we're here to help you, you dipshit..hey, guys, Axel's got one hell of a surprise for you!"

Saix was the next to advance slowly, covering his nose and wincing. His eyes widened as he caught sight of Demyx. "Kingdom is this possible?"

"I'm fuckin' indestructible," Demyx croaked.

Saix stared at his injuries as he wrenched the shackles clear out of the table. "Right now, I believe you."

Demyx had to have been in excruciating pain, but he never made a sound as Fori extracted the blade from his chest. Even when Saix took his robe off, wrapped him in it, and carried him out of the room, all he said was "Thank you." Axel stumbled beside them, absolutely determined not to let Demyx out of his sight for an instant.

Axel gently stroked Demyx's hair as Vexen bandaged him as best he could, back at the campsite - he would have held Demyx's hand, too, except both of them were horribly burned and now heavily bandaged. His left hand was missing a couple fingers as well, both sliced off at the second knuckle, which made Axel seethe. Not like the rest wasn't bad enough, but how could someone deliberately maim a musician's hands? "I'm going to kill that bitch," he hissed under his breath.

"You'll have to beat me to her, dude," Xigbar growled from somewhere close by. He was also taking a very keen interest in Demyx's continued survival. "I knew she was up to no good, but...damn. What kinda monster does it take to do something like that?"

"I don't even want to know..." Axel went back to stroking Demyx's hair. "How are you holding out?" he asked his wounded friend. Demyx just groaned, his eyes glazed and unfocused - Vexen had been kind enough to inject him with some sort of powerful painkiller. "That's all right. Just as long as you stay with us." Demyx nodded as his eyelids sagged to half-closed; Axel kept a close eye on him to make sure he kept breathing and didn't start to fade.

Vexen shook his head slowly and covered Demyx with a blanket. "I'm afraid that's the most I can do for him...there is very little hope. He may linger for days yet, but in terrible would be far kinder to simply give him a very large dose of morphine and let him go to sleep peacefully..."

While Axel tried and failed to wrap his head around the fact of Vexen even making that suggestion, a blade of red light suddenly appeared out of nowhere, resting against Vexen's throat. "That is not an option," Xemnas said in a dangerously soft voice.

Vexen swallowed hard. "Yes, Superior."

"If there is any hope at all, you must make every effort to save him."

"Yes, Superior." Vexen swallowed again as Xemnas removed his blade. "Is...Fifteen awake yet?"

Xaldin gave the side of one of the tents a precision tap with a spear butt. There was a muffled yelp. "He may not have been, but he is now."

Fori emerged a few moments later, rubbing his eyes. "Was there a valid reason for that?"

Vexen promptly fixed him with a laserlike gaze. "Are you recovered enough to be of any help yet?"

Fori lifted the blanket from Demyx's body and took a look. "Well, I could, but I'd feel a lot more secure about doing anything if we were back home. Right here, I'm worried about infection."

Vexen closed his eyes, as if he'd been expecting that answer. "It was only a matter of time...Superior, Nine must be returned to the castle. He needs far more intensive care than anyone can provide out here."

Xemnas nodded slowly. "Who do you need to accompany you?"

"Fifteen, at the very least. Preferably Six as well."

"I'm not going," came a voice from inside the tent. A moment later, Zexion poked his head out the flap, looking uncharacteristically disheveled. "Someone needs to find Thirteen. Besides, I have a keen interest in seeing Malenisa taken down."

Vexen looked at him almost pleadingly. "Six..."

"Ground tracking alone won't help to find someone who can very likely travel by magic," Zexion said in a practical tone. "You can choose me or Fifteen, and Fifteen will do you more good."

Vexen sighed, looking defeated. "Very well...Superior, we'll need help getting him there as well."

"Take Eight. Send him back as soon as Nine is settled."

Axel nodded and carefully picked up Demyx's broken body, trying not to disturb the blankets or cause him any more pain than absolutely necessary. Demyx's eyes flickered open and caught his as they entered the portal Vexen created for them. "Slan go foil," Axel whispered softly as he set Demyx down on what could only be a burn bed. "Go gcuire Dia. Go mbeannaĆ­ Dia duit."

Demyx smiled faintly. "Shukhriya, meraa dost. Alvida. Phir milengay. Roxas ko meri taraf se namaste kehna."

"...I have no idea what the hell you just said."

"I don't know what you said either."

Axel smiled a little, despite himself. "I'll tell you next time I see you. And I'll bring Roxas." No matter what Vexen said, there would be a next time. There had to be a next time.

"The trail, for all intents and purposes, ends in this room. They must have used some magical means to escape, though I have no way of knowing whether she ordered Thirteen to make a portal for her. She may not even know he can do any such thing."

This, in Axel's opinion, was the worst part. They'd torn the castle apart looking for Roxas, but apart from a few leftover guards that were quickly dealt with, it seemed the entire castle had been emptied while they were rescuing Zexion and Demyx. Now, they had no idea at all where Roxas could be, or even if he was still in this world, let alone what world he might be in if he wasn't. Axel was torn between continuing to search for Roxas no matter how long it took or where the search took him and racing back to the castle to be by Demyx's side while he recovered.

There was nothing he could do for Demyx right now except get in Vexen and Fori's way. And Zexion couldn't go looking for Roxas alone; he might get torn apart. He had to keep reminding himself of that. But... "We're never going to find him, are we," he murmured bleakly. If Zexion couldn't find the scent again, couldn't tell where they'd gone...they could literally be anywhere, and if what Demyx had said about Roxas being under a spell was true... "If there's no way to find out where they've gone...we're just wasting our time, dammit..."

Zexion looked up sharply. "No way to find out? I said nothing of the just might take a while." He got down on his hands and knees, sniffing the floor with an expression of pure disgust. "The entire castle reeks of rotting blood...but I'm fairly certain they're still in this world."

Axel stared blankly at him, his mind seeming to run at 50 percent or less of capacity. "Okay...where in this world?"

Zexion stood up, dusting himself off. "That, I don't know yet...tell Three to meet me outside."

Axel had no idea what he might want, and even less idea where to find Xaldin. On the pretense of looking for him, he wandered around aimlessly until he eventually ended up outside himself. Once outside, he just stood there, like a statue, feeling lost and alone in a whole vast world of hopelessness. He couldn't imagine how Zexion was ever going to find Roxas in time - maybe he'd find where they went eventually, but by then, they'd have fled again, and he'd never find them a second time - and Demyx was so horribly injured - he probably wouldn't even last until they came back - he'd never find out what he said...

Suddenly, a strong wind blew up out of nowhere, unhindered by the walls surrounding the castle. Axel really couldn't have cared less - all the wind did was make him that much more miserable. It wasn't until he realized the wind kept changing direction slightly - neatly and unnaturally progressing through every point of the compass - that he realized the weather wasn't out to get him. Xaldin had to be doing that, or the witch could direct the wind. He actually looked - Xaldin was standing there doing something; it had to be him. Zexion was standing next to him, eagerly sniffing the wind as it kept changing direction.

Oh. That must be what he wanted Xaldin for.

Zexion made an exclamation when the wind was coming from the north of northeast. "That way..." The wind held still, and he sniffed again, looking dispirited. "They have a long head start on us...I don't know how they're traveling, but they're miles ahead."

Axel sighed and looked around, feeling despondent all over again. "But we've gotta catch up with them somehow..." Fuck, Ax. Use your head. It's there for a reason other than growing hair.

All right. If Malenisa had meant to torture Roxas to death right away, or even in the fairly near future, she wouldn't have bothered putting a spell on him. She would have just tied him up or something. Therefore, she had to want him alive for something. Therefore, not only was he probably still alive, she probably wouldn't be able to threaten him and really mean it. He had to be really important to her somehow. But why? Light wasn't the most useful element on the board, at least in combat. If she'd been looking for a super-soldier or war mage, water would have done her a hell of a lot more good. Or illusions. Or the ability to warp through space. There had to be something else about Roxas that had attr-

She wanted the Keyblades. She wanted to be able to unlock doors between worlds at will. And why she wanted to do that...well, Axel could guess. He just didn't like his guesses.

All right. What was the fastest way they could travel in this world? Besides portaling, which was more likely to get them completely lost than where they were going if they were trying to get somewhere they'd never been before and couldn't even picture? Well, maybe Xigbar could portal directly and accurately to somewhere he'd never been, no matter how far away it was, but he'd never mentioned it before if he could...

Considering the technology level of this world, we'd probably get there faster on horseback...are there any stables attached to this castle? And if there are, are there any horses in them?

Axel glanced over quickly. Zexion and Xaldin seemed to be arguing about something, and it looked like Xigbar was making a half-assed attempt to intervene. Let them bicker; he could take care of himself for a few minutes. Besides, if he got into trouble, he could portal back - he knew where he'd be going. Moving stealthily along the castle walls, he slid off, weapons readied just in case.

He'd been half-expecting to find only empty stables, that Malenisa's guards had all saddled up and ridden off. But while the huge stables he found only held a fifth of the horses that could have lived there, he still had a few horses to choose from that were neither worn-out or disabled nor too wild for an out-of-practice rider to handle. That was a pity, because that fiery chestnut looked fast, but Axel didn't know whether anyone else in the Organization could ride at all, let alone ride a horse that spirited. Axel didn't even want to try; he hadn't been in a saddle since before losing his heart. Eventually, his eyes settled on a pretty black mare with white socks, who seemed curious and friendly but not skittish or wild. He tentatively offered her a piece of hard candy from his pocket; after a moment's hesitation, she ate it from his hand, snorting appreciatively. "Good, isn't it?" he murmured, trying to sound as reassuring as possible. "Think you might be up for a ride? Even carrying two? Don't worry; Zexion's small, and I'm lighter than I look..." He patted the mare's nose and looked around, certain he'd seen some leftover tack lying somewhere...

The look on everyone else's faces when he rode up was priceless. "What, didn't any of you know that horses could be ridden?" he asked cheekily.

Xigbar rubbed his forehead. "Well, yeah, ride?"

Axel stuck his tongue out at him. "My parents had the money to spend on it and the callousness not to care whether or not I wanted anything to do with it, so they bought me a horse and paid for riding lessons just to get me out of their hair for two hours a day, three days a week. It wasn't my favorite activity, but I did kind of get into it." He rode right up to Zexion with an insolent grin. " can't track too well just standing here, can you? You better get on."

Zexion looked at the horse as if afraid she would bite his head off at a moment's notice. "Eight...are you certain this is a good idea?"

"Trust me, I know what I'm doing. Now we can't have much time, so..."

Axel couldn't remember ever being so stiff before - several consecutive hours in the saddle were brutal to the out-of-practice. Zexion looked like he was being tortured. "I think...we're almost there," he hissed through gritted teeth. "The scent is much stronger here..."

"Well, we're not gonna be riding up there, I think," Axel groaned, staring up at the massive fortress nestled among the stony cliffs ahead of them. "Of course, how we are gonna get up there is a mystery to me."

"Get me down from here," Zexion muttered impatiently. Axel rolled his eyes, but dismounted somewhat awkwardly, then lifted Zexion off. "Thank I suggest making a portal back to the campsite so the rest can join us." Axel glowered at him, but obediently opened a portal. They did kind of need reinforcements.

One by one, everyone else crowded through the portal, looking variously excited, anxious, and pissed - apparently they'd all been waiting impatiently for the portal. "Hey, Marly, think you can grow a vine ladder up the side of that wall?" Axel asked.

Marluxia was apparently so taken aback by the magnitude of the obstacle ahead of them he forgot to be an asshole. "...Give me an hour, and maybe."

"Forget it, dudes," Xigbar said, strolling past them and right on up the cliff. "I'll make a portal for you when I get in, okay?"

Zexion sighed heavily. "Some days, it's as if he delights in tempting fate..."

"It's not like I'm gonna fall, shorty!"

"Fat lot of good that will do him or us if he gets himself killed by guards," Xaldin muttered as Zexion seethed.

Axel sighed. "I'm just hoping that he can get in in time...I don't even wanna know what that bitch is cooking up in there, especially since Fori went back to the castle with Vexen...we've lost our early-warning system..." He knew Fori was their best and possibly their only chance of saving Demyx's life for more than a few days, and if he could do that he'd never stop being grateful to him, but as far as he knew, he might also be their best and possibly only chance of saving Roxas. It was horrible to think they might only save one of his brothers, and even worse to think they might not save either. As Xigbar disappeared over the top of the cliff, Axel couldn't suppress a feeling of intense dread.

For what felt like hours, they hung around the base of the cliff waiting for Xigbar. Axel and Zexion tried to stretch their legs some, and Axel ate a pack of crackers to keep his blood sugar in line. Xemnas held a quick conference with Xaldin, Lexaeus, and Saix. The horse - who Axel had tentatively named "Socks" - decided she was very attracted to Luxord, and started following him around, rather to his discomfort. Axel thought that was funny as hell, but he just couldn't bring himself to laugh - he was too worried about Roxas and Demyx to so much as crack a smile. Feeling sick to his stomach with worry, he sat down on the ground with his head in his hands.

And yet again, he found himself quickly dodging to one side as another portal opened on top of him. "What the everyone using me for a portal target or what?"

"There's an idea, dude." Xigbar leaned out of the portal just enough to beckon them all inside. "I found a storage room that looks like it doesn't get much traffic. We should be okay hiding out in there for a bit."

The tiny room Xigbar led them into barely had standing space for all eleven of them, even given that Xigbar was standing on the ceiling instead of the floor. Eventually a few of them ended up sitting on top of boxes, crates, and barrels just so they'd all fit. "Two, do you have any idea where Thirteen might be?" Xemnas asked without prelude once they were all settled.

"Not the foggiest," Xigbar said, holding his hands in the air. "All I really came in looking for was a safe place for the bunch of us to hide for a bit."

Everybody looked pointedly at Zexion, but the Cloaked Schemer only shook his head dispiritedly. "The stench of blood in here is too strong. She must use this hideout often - I can't smell him." Maybe Fori could, Axel thought moodily, then remembered his own previously drawn conclusion that Malenisa didn't want to drain Roxas dry; she wanted him alive and under her control so she'd have access to the Keyblades. Which wasn't much better, but it did make it much more likely they'd find him alive.

Xemnas sighed. "Very well...we will have to split up and search the castle diligently for any sign of Thirteen, or of the witch. Cause as little disturbance as possible - if she realizes we have invaded her stronghold, she may flee a second time - and under no circumstances is anyone to wander alone. Search in pairs at least. If you find something, return here - don't attempt anything rash without reinforcements."

A few random pairs were sorted and sent out, leaving a handful of members in the storage room to wait in case someone needed reinforcements. To Axel's utter lack of surprise, Xemnas was one of those staying behind; it was more surprising that Xaldin and Larxene were staying with him. Axel himself had been paired with Xigbar. "Ready to kick some witchy ass?" he muttered to the man on the ceiling.

Xigbar did a neat backflip and landed on the floor. "You know it. Where should we start?"

Axel thought for a moment. "In all the fairy tales, it's either the highest room in the tallest tower or the darkest corner of the deepest dungeon. Granted, they seem kind of trite, but...from a defensive standpoint, they both make sense. They're the hardest places to get at."

"...Will miracles never cease. The Tactless Wonder is starting to use his brain."

"...You know, I could be going with Luxord right now."

"Too late. He left with Saix. But what you said makes sense - she'd figure on being safest high or low, since any invaders would have to come in at the ground level and thereby meet all the defenders and have to get through them before they could get anywhere." Xigbar's eye gleamed. "Unless you're dealing with invaders who can walk through walls, floors, and ceilings. Onward to the basement." With that, he seemed to jump straight through the floor; a moment later, a portal opened right where he'd been standing. Axel went through it warily, and found himself in a windowless hallway, poorly-lit by scattered torches. "Not sure how deep this place goes yet, but we're deeper than we started, not to mention more out-of-the way," Xigbar offered.

"Out of the way is good," Axel muttered, conjuring a softball-sized flame in his hands. "Where to from here? Left, right, or further down?"

Xigbar shrugged expressively. "Look around. See who or what we find. Remember there's more than just us looking, so we can take the time to take a good look here - someone else is already looking elsewhere."

The two of them scoured the level they were on, careful to never let each other out of their sight. They didn't find anything interesting but the stairs. "This better not mean she's up in one of the towers," Axel muttered.

"There might be a lot of basement and dungeon to search," Xigbar muttered. "Better not throw up your hands just yet." Axel sighed heavily, but obediently followed Xigbar down the stairs.

The next...however long they spent down there searching...reminded Axel of nightmares he had every so often, of tearing apart the Castle that Never Was or his Other's old home or the ruins of New Orleans in search of something vitally important that he could not find to save his life. The fact that he actually knew what he was looking for this time didn't make him feel any better. He was still deeply afraid they'd never find a trace of Roxas, or that they would only to find he'd disappeared yet again and they'd have to set off on another cross-country search, or that they'd find he'd left the world entirely and they'd probably never see him again...

"Kingdom Hearts on a pie smell that, dude?"

Axel took one sniff and recoiled, trying not to gag. "Good smells like the torture chamber..." The stench of old blood was weaker, thank God, otherwise the crackers would have been all over the floor. And there wasn't any fresh-blood smell on top of it.

Xigbar winced. "Must mean we're getting close. Damn, no wonder Zexy's nose was so far out of joint, if that was what he was smelling..."

Getting close...that would mean they were close to Malenisa's inner sanctum, at least at this had to be where she was keeping Roxas, it had to be...Axel raced ahead of Xigbar and rushed down the stairs, determined to find his little brother as soon as possible.

"What are you doing here?" a very familiar but frighteningly cold voice asked.

Axel stopped in his tracks. "Roxas?...We're here to get you out of here. We're here to rescue you! Come on, we might not have much time -" Too excited to pay attention to Roxas's cold voice or frostier expression, he grabbed him by the wrist, and got belted across the jaw for his trouble. "...What the fuck...?"

"If you have to rescue someone, I suggest you find someone who actually needs rescuing," Roxas sneered. "Now get lost."

Axel stroked his aching jaw with a trembling hand. "Roxas...what the hell...?"

"Who the hell are you freaks, anyway?" Roxas demanded, looking like he was just itching for another chance to hit Axel.

As stunned as Axel was by that question, he might as well have. "...Who...Kingdom Hearts, Rox...I'm your best friend! Friend - hell, we're practically brothers! You and me and Demyx - oh, good God, Rox, remember Demyx?" This was wrong, this was all wrong - Luxord and Saix had said the key to breaking whatever spell had been on Xigbar was saying his name, and he'd said Roxas's name at least twice, and he was still so thoroughly under that spell...

"She warned me you'd say something like that. She told me to be on my guard, because you lot were sure to try to trick me into going with you."

Axel wanted to bang his head against the wall. "Roxas - no! I'm telling you the truth! She put a spell on you!"

"How very astute of you," said a sultry voice that drew Axel's attention immediately. "Would you like to know exactly how I did it? It's a very powerful one - even knowing about it, his mind is made up, as you can see. I'm afraid you two are wasting your time."

Someone shoved Axel in the back - Xigbar had finally caught up to him. "Get out of the way, bonehead," Xigbar muttered. "I'm gonna rip her guts out. Give her the same treatment she gave Demyx, and I'm gonna be laughing my ass off the whole time."

Malenisa gave them a disgustingly pleasant smile - she was attractive enough, Axel decided, with her nice curves and full lips and smoky dark eyes, but some intangible quality about her just made his skin crawl. "Ah, so you do know how the spell was cast. Excellent; that saves me a lot of boring explanation." She put a protective arm around Roxas's shoulders; Roxas didn't even twitch. "You might feel better knowing that your musician friend didn't die in vain. His blood won me an invaluable prize."

Axel almost said something about Demyx still being alive - at least, as far as he knew - but Xigbar ran out of patience and walked right through the wall and around him. "Fuck that, bitch. He's ours, and he's gonna stay ours, no matter what shit you try to pull. And we're taking him with us."

Roxas gave Xigbar the finger. Axel barely noticed; he didn't like the way Malenisa's eyes suddenly lit up when she saw Xigbar walking through the wall. "In that, old man, I'm afraid you're wrong," she said in a slightly distracted voice. "You'll never get him to come of his own free will, and you'd be hard put to carry him away against it..."

"Though if you want to try, it would be fun to watch her break you too," Roxas added.

Malenisa smiled. "Who knows? If he's good, I might even let him have a turn with the dagger."

That did it. The insinuation that Roxas had enjoyed watching Demyx's torture made Axel lose his head completely. He stalked menacingly towards Malenisa, arms outstretched to summon his chakrams. "You'll keep your claws on him over my dead body," he snarled.

And that was it. Malenisa sprang forward suddenly, catching Axel completely by surprise and digging her dagger into his shoulder. "If you insist," she hissed. Axel jerked and tried to fight back somehow, but she dragged the blade downwards, slicing him open almost from shoulder to hip, and the pain left him absolutely paralyzed. He glanced at Xigbar, wondering what the hell the Freeshooter was doing and why he wasn't moving to stop the bitch, but the utterly blank look in his eye told him everything he needed to know and didn't want to. "Yes, that was rather stupid of me to let him go with only a weak holding charm and flimsy glamor the first time," Malenisa explained conversationally. "I had no idea of who and what he was then. Now that I do - I'm not letting him get away this time. A man who can walk through walls? How could I pass that up twice?" The dagger plunged into Axel's other shoulder, and the pain redoubled. "I'm afraid all I have time for is a quick and dirty enchantment right now, though it'll still be solid, but once I get hold of the little silver-haired fellow again - which shouldn't be too hard if I use your little blond friend as a stalking-horse like I should have in the first place - I'll have the resources to put a good, permanent hold on him."

Axel screamed involuntarily as the dagger was dragged down again - fuck it all, it had all gone so completely to Hell, the Organization would never recover - this fucking witch was going to torture him to death right here, right now - she'd made a complete slave out of Roxas, and she was doing the same to Xigbar - she intended to capture and torture Zexion, and all things considered, there was a more than fair chance that she could - with the Keyblade Master at her beck and call, she could spread her depravity throughout the worlds - if she set her sights on the rest of the Organization, God help them all, especially if she could negate Fori's powers somehow - the dagger plunged into his leg - fuck, whatever happened, it wasn't like Axel was going to see it - the bitch was going to kill him the same way she'd almost killed Demyx - hell, this news would finish him off...

The dagger was jerked out as quickly as it had been plunged in. Axel and Malenisa both stared in shock at the Keyblade that suddenly seemed to be growing out of her chest. Roxas was staring at it too, looking like he didn't quite understand what was going on or what he was doing. " could it break?" Malenisa murmured, looking dazedly from the Keyblade to Roxas, then she slowly collapsed, sliding jerkily off the blade.

The Keyblade clanged to the ground, falling awkwardly on top of her body. Roxas stared in horror at her, backing off a step or two, then he looked at Axel and immediately ran over to him. "Axel, I am so sorry...when I saw what she was doing, I just - remembered everything and I - I couldn't let her - I had to do something..."

Axel sank to the ground in slow motion, too dazed with pain to speak. Xigbar seemed to snap out of it suddenly, and shook his head. "...Good move, kid. Good move. All I can say."

Roxas seemed to ignore him totally. He knelt by Axel's side, hugging him as best he could without aggravating his injuries any more than he had to. "Ax, she killed Demyx," he murmured, eyes filling with tears.

Axel found himself smiling weakly - the spell was broken. Roxas was really back. "Rox..."

"She tortured him to death, Ax! And she made me watch!"


"He never screamed or cried or begged for mercy or - or anything...he was so brave..."

"Roxas." That time, Axel managed to get his attention. "She didn't kill Demyx. He survived. I dunno how, but he did. That's how you broke her spell, Rox. Because Demyx was still alive." He had not a scrap of evidence to back up his claim, but he firmly believed it - if Demyx had died and the spell had been complete, not only would Roxas have never been able to break it by himself, killing Malenisa wouldn't have freed him, it would have killed him as well.

A hand reached through a hole in space and pulled Roxas back to his feet. "All right, dudes...about time we try to round everyone up and get the hell home already. Kingdom Hearts knows we're all ready to get out of here."

AN: Tune in next time for the happily ever after...assuming there is one. (evil laugh)

THERE, evil epic of doom! I'm finally done with you! (Well, except for the epilogue.) But you will eat no more of my life or creativity! BUWAhaha!

Seriously, I've been working on and off on this stupid thing since July. The story first started to coalesce in my head while I was hunting the Japanese beetles that were trying to eat our plum trees. It was mostly the real epic bits that kept coming to me - Zexion's rescue, Demyx's torture, Roxas's suddenly breaking the spell while Malenisa was torturing Axel - and so many of the in-between, non-epic parts were such a pain to write, but they had to be written...and of course, when the Japanese beetles all died out at the end of the season, there went my source of ready inspiration. I resorted to having my beta readers poke me with sticks until I accomplished something. (Seriously, that was a big help. Otherwise I might have just let this thing die.)

Disclaimer: I don't own Kingdom Hearts, got it memorized?