A/N: So this is my second chapter. There are serious spoilers for ReCom, as stated before, so get out while you stil can. Otherwise, read and enjoy. And pretty please with a cherry on top review!
Disclaimer: I do not own Kingdom Hearts, unfortunately. If I did Axel wouldn't have died.
"Stalling, Axel?" a mocking voice called out of the darkness, after Axel had only taken a few steps. Startled, Number VIII sank into a defensive crouch, pivoting towards the noise, summoning his chakrams to him in a flicker of flames. Their light cast eerie shadows on the walls, and threw the face of Zexion into eerie relief.
"Oh. It's you." Axel observed in a bored tone, allowing his chakrams to vanish, straightening up. "So." He folded his arms. "Come to join the party?"
"Hardly," the Cloaked Schemer replied, tone oozing with condescension. It was well known that Zexion, while an excellent strategist, disliked getting involved with the real action. "I came to tell you that you're wasting your time. They're both on the twelfth basement level, blundering through the rooms." The shorter man snorted. "They may be lost down there forever."
"You could have mentioned this earlier," Axel noted, allowing a hint of irritation to creep into his tone.
"I could have," Zexion agreed.
Axel's eyes narrowed, but he held his tongue. He was a firm believer in the "don't get mad, get even" philosophy. Why challenge the senior member when some of Number VI's precious library could mysteriously be reduced to ashes later? Instead, a cruel smile played on his lips as something clicked in his mind. "Hey, Zexy."
"What did you call me?" Number VI asked dangerously.
"I just thought of a way to make this more interesting. There's no challenge in rounding up two frightened kids." That was a gross understatement: everything Axel knew about Riku suggested that the boy could take care of himself. And Zexion had smelled a great deal of power on the strange girl with him. "What if we activate the illusions on the basement levels? We could think of it as a trial run. You know, to make sure the spells work properly when Sora arrives," he added, trying to placate Zexion with a logical reason. In reality, Axel just wanted to sit back and enjoy the mayhem.
"I helped to lay them myself. The spells will work," Zexion snapped. "Still…" He raised a gloved hand to his chin, pondering. Soon he wore an unpleasant smile of his own. "I'm sure it couldn't hurt," he conceded, flashing Axel a glance that informed Number VIII that he hadn't succeeded in fooling the senior member. Zexion reached into his coat and held up a single card. "This should suffice. I'll go and prepare. You keep an eye on them," he added sharply, reminding Axel of his duty.
Still smiling a predator's smile, Axel gave Zexion a two-fingered salute that managed to have a mocking air about it, and stepped into a portal, heading down to the twelfth basement level.
Riku made his way carefully through yet another dark room, hands oustretched to feel for obstacles like columns, or yet another of the dusty crates left scattered around carelessly. This room looked identical to all the others that he'd passed through, looking for a way up. Somehow he knew that if he reached the top, he would find Sora. He'd known it from the second he saw this strange castle, with all its odd angles. From the outside it looked like a model that a child had glued together incorrectly, with some parts actually horizontal. And apparently, Riku thought sourly, its inside was just as confusing. The small door he'd found left ajar along one wall on the castle's perimeter had opened onto a long hall with an ornate set of marble steps, so ascending one floor had been easy. But now, he wasn't certain he could find his way back down, let alone up.
"Wait up," a voice hissed behind him. Rolling his eyes, Riku complied, and soon his companion caught up.
He'd met her on the path here, after he'd stumbled on an exit from the dark realm. He'd found himself on a path that seemed to stretch on forever, eventually blending with the dusky sky overhead. Riku had decided to follow the path, and finally reached a point where it split into three. As he'd stood at the crossroads, considering, a black-coated figure had appeared to question him. Riku had summoned his new weapon, the Way to the Dawn—once he'd purged himself of the darkness, Souleater had disappeared—dropping into a fighting crouch, but the stranger seemed content to merely talk. "Which route will you take? The road to Light," and it gestured to the left-most path, "or the road to the Dark?" and it indicated the right-most path.
"Neither," Riku had replied. "I'll take that one." He pointed to the middle path.
"That twilight road goes nowhere," the figure scoffed.
"No. It's the way to the dawn." Suddenly the figure had disappeared, and with it the paths to the left and right, leaving only the middle path, the "way to the dawn" as Riku had dubbed it. He thought it a suitable place for himself. Having been tainted by darkness, he didn't belong with the light, but neither did he want to be enveloped by darkness. Riku charged down the path, in pursuit of the stranger, intent on getting some answers. Instead, a few feet down, he'd found a girl, sitting in the grass to one side of the path. She was so absorbed in plucking shoots from a patch in between her sneakers that she hadn't heard him approach. Looking up to behold Riku and his weapon, she froze at first, her violet eyes huge. Then, scooping up a stick, she leaped to her feet, holding it before her in a block.
Riku blinked his ocean-blue eyes in surprise, and then he laughed. "You've got to be kidding," he scoffed. "You really think you can take me, with just that stick?"
"Yeah," she replied, attempt at bravado ruined when her voice quavered a bit. A comma of turquoise hair from her choppy, face-framing bob fell across one eye, and she swiped it out of the way angrily. "So? You looking for a fight?" she asked seriously.
Riku lowered the Way to the Dawn. "No. I'm looking for a man wearing all black—black coat, black boots. Seen him?"
"Nope. Sorry." The girl still held her stick, watching him warily. "Who are you, anyway?"
"Riku." He put a hand out, and, after a moment's hesitation, she dropped the stick to take it, pumping it twice before dropping it like a hot coal.
"Rineza. So…do you know where here is?" she asked in a rush.
"I was wondering the same thing," Riku confessed, and Rineza's face fell. Her unguarded disappointment reminded him of Sora, and so he rushed to offer a consoling statement. "But I bet if we keep walking, we'll find a road sign or something."
"We? You mean, you'll walk with me?"
"Sure." And they'd set off together, following the path to its end. To here.
Now, Riku shot a skeptical glance at the girl who stood beside him. "I don't hear anything."
Rineza propped her hands on her hips. "Well, I do. It's this weird…humming."
Riku shrugged. "Well, let's go and check it out, then." He continued his slow trip through the dark room, and she tagged along dutifully. Finally, they reached a door, and Riku pulled it open to reveal… a town square, open to the sky.
Rineza's mouth dropped. "I don't like this," she said, finally, taking a step back, staring at the bizarre sight with wide eyes.
Riku ignored her. "Impossible," he breathed. He knew this place. The brown cobblestones, the wardens in their uniforms of blue vests over cream shirts, the people ambling between the wood-fronted stores all looked familiar. "This is…"
"Traverse Town?" Axel hissed, observing the scene from the shadows. Couldn't the Cloaked Schemer have come up with someplace more interesting? Well, it should at least confuse the duo, make them more susceptible to Axel's mind games. He was here to investigate them, after all. The order to kill would probably come later, he reflected without a qualm.
For now, he kept his eyes on the unknown quantity, studying her curiously. Powerful, Zexion had said, just as powerful as Sora, and with a very similar scent. And yet she certainly didn't look like much, standing so close to the Keyblade master's friend, Riku, that she was practically in his shadow. Petite and thin, she dressed in nondescript, tomboy clothes: a lavender vest over a white T-shirt, and faded jeans over lavender sneakers. Her hair was considerably more memorable, a vibrant turquoise chopped in a slightly uneven chin-length bob. It looked as though a child had cut it. Maybe she'd cut it herself—without a mirror—in the dark. Axel smirked.
"Traverse Town," Riku concluded, snapping Axel out of his observations, stepping through the door. The girl followed along more slowly, violet eyes jumping around constantly. Whether she was searching the area for possible threats or just taking in the scene Axel couldn't determine.
"So, where are we exactly?" she asked, lightly enough.
"Traverse Town," Riku repeated, looking back at her. "I guess." He reached up to massage his forehead. "But we're inside a castle…this doesn't make any sense."
"Well, if you've been to Traverse Town, you must know some people here, right?" the girl asked."Why don't we go and find them? If we can't, or if they seem off, we'll know that this is a trap or an illusion or something."
"Uh…" Riku's brow furrowed in concentration. "There's Leon, and Aerith, and Yuffie. They're not friends of mine, but they're friends of Sora's. They would help us. I'm not sure where to find them, though."
"Well, then. Want to explore?" Without waiting for a reply, she stepped off into the crowd. Despite her bright hair, she blended into the crowd surprisingly well. As good of a tracker as he was, Axel nearly lost sight of her as she threaded her way between bodies, walking over towards the strip of stores in the distance. Riku hurried after her. "Wait up, Rineza!"
Rineza. Axel filed the name away into his mental database. He opened a portal onto a "rooftop" in the illusory world to keep monitoring things. So far, this girl seemed nothing like the Keyblade Mater. Or at least what Axel supposed Sora must be like, given his interactions with Roxas, and the reports that had floated to the Organization. The boy was naïve and impulsive, generous to a fault, trusting, kind, brave, and certainly knew how to use a Keyblade. His strong heart, and the Keyblade linked to it, were what so interested Axel and his colleagues. This girl seemed quiet, and cautious, with none of Sora's spunk and bravery. Still, if Zexion thought that Rineza smelled similar to Sora, then she must have a similarly strong heart, and perhaps powers of her own.
Axel smiled. Only one way to find out. This simulation of a world should be fully equipped with simulation Heartless. If that didn't make any powers of Light manifest in the girl, nothing would.
Strolling along the rooftops, leaping up or down when required, he followed the progress of the duo as they strolled through "First District." Riku looked around for the three people he had mentioned, Leon, Aerith and Yuffie. Axel knew of them vaguely. All three were good warriors with strong hearts, good candidates for Nobodies. But the Organization was no longer actively recruiting, and for experiments they had their eye on the big prize: Sora.
Riku turned to speak to Rineza, and the furrowed brow and downturned mouth cued Axel that they were unsuccessful. Next they would have to head to the "Second District"…Heartless Territory. And the fun could begin.