Author's Note: This story is one hundred percent a birthday gift to my darling Lauren (theisraelproject107)! I can't even begin to say how amazing she is and how much she deserves so much more than I can possibly do for her. *hugs*
This is a little outside of my usual genre, unexpectedly, so we'll see how it goes. The plan at this point is to post weekly, unless Lauren says otherwise. ;3 Also, as you all know, this is fanfiction and the characters aren't mine – past present, and future, now and in every chapter to come. Mkay. ^.^
Chapter 1 ~ The Heartless King
In the ages before the great thing called Science raised its grim head and began to spout answers to every question the human race could think to ask; in the time between the dawn of history and the Ages of Advancement – those centuries of greater and greater speed and hurry in the lives of men – in this long-forgotten time, the race of men lived scattered over the land. They ventured to sea, but not far, and they ventured into the wilds, but only a little. On the whole, humans followed the spreading, gentle valleys – places of peace, with streams for water and fertile ground for food. Here they gathered in small villages, clusters of life breathing and smiling and aging and crying arm-in-arm from birth to the grave, for rare and few were those who ever turned their steps away from the familiar pathways of home. No, mankind had not yet learned to roam – the centuries past were fewer in those days than they are today, and the people who lived then were closer to the years gone by.
Life was simple and quiet and quaint, a gentle balance between laboring for one's own survival and enjoying the simplest pleasures of being alive. The stories told by firelight in the evenings were as fantastical as daily life was mundane, and yet they were told and heard with complete credence – every man, woman, and child knew with conviction that these stories of the strange and supernatural were utterly true, for this was the time when fairytales were born, first in reality, then in retelling. They knew to have faith in the stories chanted by the old ones, for it was never a guarantee that some new story might not be about to begin…with them.
The possibility seems exciting to us today, but to them it was a dark and dreaded terror. The legends have lost their raw horror through the years, gathering instead the beauty and idealism we long to paint them with. However, in the years when the tales were born, they were unvarnished, frightening – a black contrast to the golden light of the common villagers' peaceful, everyday life. No one wished to meet with adventures. No one wished to lose the fragile, precious security and happiness of home.
No one wished it…but stories were still being born. The impossible and the magical were still alive in that time, still moving, still tearing the occasional lone soul from his quiet village life and casting him into the jaws of a legend, waiting to be born.
On a bright day in spring, the world of magic would sharpen its talons once again, preparing to capture the victim of a newborn legend.
"Roxas, wait for me!"
"No way, Shorty! Watch me eat up all your dinner by the time you get home!"
"Shut up! I'll be taller than you when I grow up!"
In the tiny village of Strife's Ford, so called because of the ford across the nearby stream and the family that had first settled there, the men were heading home from the fields for dinner. Two little boys, brothers, had broken ahead of the general group of farmers and raced one another down the only real street their village could claim.
The blond who called laughing taunts back to his little brother kept easily ahead of the smaller brunet boy – though Sora was only sixteen months younger, he had always been small. His legs were still short by comparison to his brother's, and the boy could never seem to keep up with the elder son.
"Last one home is a warty old to-oad!" Roxas sang out teasingly, to his little brother's dismay. Sora unleashed a whining cry as he stretched his legs even further in a desperate attempt to catch up with his brother. Unfortunately for him, Roxas could go a bit faster too, and refused to allow Sora to catch him.
By the time the two reached home – Roxas winning the little race, of course – Sora was gasping for breath and beginning to whimper. The boy had always been a bit of a crybaby, and his brother's teasing, more often than not, caused the young lad to revert a few years and begin pouting like a small child again.
"No fair, Roxas…you never play fair!" Deep blue eyes were full of betrayed trust, and the pouty lower lip was quivering dangerously. The taller blond took note of these signs and rolled identical blue eyes in exasperation – an expression that only increased when their mother suddenly appeared in the doorway. One glance at Sora and she turned to her elder son.
"Roxas! Have you been picking on your brother again?" Hands landed on hips as dark hair was tossed aside with an impatient flick of the neck.
"Mo-omm, we just raced is all! He's crying over nothing again!" Sora was already winding skinny arms around his mother's waist – a gesture thoroughly reminiscent of his old habit of clinging to her skirts, only adjusted now by a slight increase in the brunet's height.
The dark-haired lady sighed in exasperation, murmuring under her breath, "These boys…" Then, looking up, she caught sight of the men coming in from the fields, her husband among them. Suddenly businesslike, she shooed her children toward the back of the house. "All right boys, enough from both of you. Go wash up at the pump and get inside quick, dinner is ready."
The blond child disappeared in a flash, the brunet following soon after, forgetting his mother's skirts as he continued to follow behind his brother. The lady was left on her doorstep, smiling as she waited for her husband. When he reached their house, calling farewells to the other men, she stepped forward.
"Cloud. Welcome home."
Her husband turned a tired but kind and warm face to her and reached for her, soon wrapping his wife in a warm embrace. "Tifa," he gently answered, placing a kiss on her cheek.
His wife accepted the gestures, then turned briskly with her husband back to the house. "Dinner is ready. Were the boys helpful today?"
His arm around Tifa's waist, Cloud conversationally answered, "At times." He chuckled. "Their constant competition is sometimes a useful motivation, and sometimes only a distraction to them. But I think they are improving. They will both be a great help this season."
"I'm glad." Tifa's small smile betrayed her pride – apart from her personal strength and good housekeeping, the fact that she had given the next village leader two sons right away was looked upon by all as another proof of her worth as a good wife.
"And the girls? Have they been helpful to you today?" Cloud asked, recognizing his wife's pleased smile.
At this, Tifa rolled her eyes. "They are gradually becoming more useful in the kitchen, when they are not sending me to the end of my wits." The twins had been making Tifa worry over the extent of her wits almost since their birth eight years before. Cloud chuckled again at his wife's repeated complaint as the two entered their house, then, with a few final words, turned toward the back of the house to wash up as well. Tifa returned to the kitchen, where Naminé and Kairi were waiting, Grandfather Strife already seated at the table.
Soon, the entire Strife family was noisily gathered around the dinner table, sharing their small but hearty meal amidst seemingly endless conversation. In the warm evening light that now, in spring, lasted a little longer than before, the village occupied itself with many such family dinners. The foremost family in the village was as ordinary as any other, as happy as they could wish to be, and fated for a terrible misfortune…though they knew nothing of it yet, and just as well – that time was still a long way off.
The table had been cleared, the dishes cleaned, the fire lit. The sun had set, for evenings were still a bit early, and the family had gathered around the fire in the main room, for evenings were still a bit chilly. At such times in Strife's Ford, any house that held an elder was sure to put this sort of evening to but one use – the telling and hearing of fascinating, terrifying tales.
Old Strife, the village leader, was no embarrassment to the town's oral traditions. In fact, of all the storytellers in the village, he was known to be the very best, and his grandchildren happily took advantage of his presence in their home and always troubled him for a story at the end of the day. Of late, the stories had been even more frequent – Old Strife could not claim to be too tired from working in the fields to tell stories, for he had lately injured his leg and was forced to remain at home while it healed.
Thus, on this evening in spring, as the clammy dew fell outside, covering the village and raising a damp smell from the earth, Old Strife was cajoled and pleaded into telling one of the frightening local legends.
"All right, all right, you pests! Sit quietly and I'll tell you the tale of the Heartless King." The children gathered happily before their grandfather on the floor, watching his old face in the firelight, entranced already as the man's voice lowered into his customary storytelling chant.
"It was long, long years ago…my grandfather's grandfather was but a babe. In that time, a great and powerful ruler reigned in this valley, and his castle was high and lofty and splendid, and it was perched at the very top of Old Smokey. There was a fabulous court there, and nobles decked with jewels came and went like glittering streams."
"But Grandfather," Sora broke in, "How could they have a castle on top of Old Smokey, and be able to get to it?"
The orange firelight reflected brightly in the old, dark eyes. "Ah, Sora, that is because long, long ago, Old Smokey was not like today. Today, you cannot so much as set foot there, for the whole mountain is a tangled wilderness, and even rabbits cannot make room for a burrow. But in those days, it was a clean, open forest from base to peak, and there were wide, cobbled roads that sloped gently upward, all the way to the top. A four-horse carriage could easily make its way up…what's more, there was room enough on the roads that two carriages could go abreast, so there was no trouble at all if a nobleman going up in his carriage happened to meet another noble coming down the same road."
The children's eyes were wide as they tried to imagine this. Even the best roads in Strife's Ford could mean trouble for two wagons passing one another.
"Well," Old Strife continued, "In those days, as I say, there was a mighty ruler. The king of the whole valley, and many valleys beyond lived there, and held court in great and marvelous glory. He was a young and magnificent king, and a good ruler. His people loved him, and all was well. Yet…" Old Strife glowered darkly as his voice lowered, gloom seeming to creep closer into the room as his words became darker, "The king had one fault, and terrible it was – he was a proud and arrogant man.
"Many other kings sent their daughters to him, seeking to make them his queen and form an alliance with the great king, yet he cruelly turned them all away…sometimes after toying with their affections in a most brutal manner. You see, he believed that none were worthy to be his queen, and his arrogance led him to be cruel to them. At last, after many years of this behavior, the king made a fatal error with one princess.
"She was the daughter of a king in a small, distant country…and her mother was a fairy from the forest in that kingdom. Her own people knew that their princess had powerful magic in her bloodline, yet they were far off from here, and their rumors never reached the king's ears. And so, when the arrogant king received this princess at his castle, he had no idea that she was not a person to be toyed with. And what do you think he did?"
Roxas piped up in an awe-hushed voice, "He made her mad."
Old Strife nodded wisely. "More than that. He was heartlessly cruel to her, and crushed all her hopes…for you see, she had really set her heart upon him. She had been charmed by his handsome face and great power and wealth, and when he turned her away so harshly, she was shocked to the core.
"She left in a furious rage, and as she travelled back down Old Smokey she continued to seethe in her anger…and soon she fell into a black and bitter hate. All the hate of her magical heart came seeping out like poison, creeping away into the forest the whole length of her journey down the mountain. At last, when her carriage reached the bottom, she called to the driver to stop, and she turned back and looked up to the castle.
"Then, in a voice that rose like the howling of a mighty wind, she spoke a curse upon the king. 'You heartless, cruel man!' She said. 'You have swallowed my heart with your black soul…Now there shall come against you a monster to avenge my sorrow, and it shall eat your heart in exchange for mine. And yet, you shall not die! You shall live as a dead thing, all light and happiness forbidden to you for eternity! And, like you have consumed the hearts offered to you, you shall live on by consuming hearts in truth…yet none of them will fill the void in your own chest. I curse your life, I curse your kingdom…I lay this eternal curse upon you, from this very moment!'
"And with the princess's words, the sky grew black and thunder shook the mountain, and all the hate that she had scattered over the mountain came alive in the darkness, and began to form the shape of her revenge from that moment on."
The children's eyes were wide and fearful, and Kairi had begun to whimper. Her grandfather spoke more quietly.
"Yet, as she rode away from the mountain, the princess felt her anger fade away and turn to sorrow. And her own broken heart caused her to pause, and she spoke again, this time in a voice like a whispering spring rain…"
"What did she say?" Naminé whispered, blue eyes wide with wonder.
Old Strife shook his head. "No one knows…but she cast a little hope after her curse. It was a slim ray, and it was a thing that the king himself would never have a chance of finding on his own…yet her provision allowed that somehow, by some powerful magic, another might find a way to redeem him.
"Well, she left. The sun returned to the mountain, and the king lived on in ignorance of the curse…but he had little time left. The hateful monster born from the princess's curse was growing greater and stronger in secret on the mountain, and it began to prowl about in the night. Soon, rumors had reached the king of a terrifying beast in the forest that came out at night and was blacker than a starless sky.
"Now, the king was a great hunter – he loved hunting as his favorite sport. And so he decided to hunt for the great beast, and he laughed about the matter and rode out during the day to try to catch it and kill it, but he never found it while the sun shone. And his advisors and friends worried greatly, and all warned him to come back before nightfall, but do you think that the proud king would listen?"
"I bet not!" Sora cried in answer.
"Exactly so," his grandfather replied. "One night at last, he remained out far too late, and before he could reach the castle again, darkness was falling. It happened that it was a rainy day, and as the king and his hunting party turned back toward the castle, a dank mist rose up around them. But this was no ordinary mist, for soon it had isolated each man from his neighbor…and it was not long before the king was lost in the forest, and alone."
The children had gathered closer, leaning in tensely and listening. Cloud and Tifa watched them with smiles, yet both were also sobered slightly, for they knew the end of the story, and it was no laughing matter to them.
Old Strife spoke quietly now, slowly building in volume to add intensity. "The king wandered in the mist, searching for his companions, but the path seemed to have gone all wrong, and he couldn't find his way. Soon, it was fully night, and he should have been afraid, but no. The foolish, arrogant king thought nothing could ever harm him, and he laughed in the very face of the darkness!
"And that's when he heard it…a low rumbling and rustling in the trees. A great, heaving breathing sound – it was the monster of the princess's hate! It had found him!" A collective gasp rose from the children. Old Strife sat back. "Well, no one knows all the details, for no one saw it happen, yet it is certain that the beast caught the king, and, with its horrible black claws and teeth, it tore his heart out of his chest!
"The king's screams were heard over the whole mountain as his heart was eaten before his very eyes. And, by magical means, the far-away princess heard it too, and knew her curse was fulfilled. Then, she sent a terrible storm over the mountain, unlike any other storm ever seen. For this storm brought torrents, not of rain, but of fire. Fire rained down upon the mountain, burning all the beautiful forest and sending all the nobles fleeing for their lives in terror. The whole mountain was covered in the rain of fire all night, and then, when morning dawned, nothing could be seen except smoke.
"The mountain smoked for a week – that is how we came to call it Old Smokey – and no one ventured to set foot on it, to find out what had become of the castle or the king. At last, when the smoke lifted, a strange sight met the eyes of those who waited. They had expected to see nothing but a burned and desolate waste, yet it was not so. Instead, a great and dark forest had grown up in place of the lovely one that had been there, and the whole mountain was a tangle of dark undergrowth that had sprung seemingly from nowhere. The roads were destroyed or hidden, and none could make any headway onto the mountain. Old Smokey was dark and silent, and dark and silent it remains, to this day."
In the breath of silence, Roxas spoke quietly. "What happened to the king then? Did he die?"
Now, Old Strife's face took on the grimmest expression yet…a dark gaze that was faintly echoed in the concern and trouble on Cloud and Tifa's faces.
"No, Roxas…though his existence now can hardly be called 'living.' He has become a monster himself, a horrible creature atop the mountain. We know he lives there still, and the princess's curse is still at work. Remember, she cursed him to live forever, and to eat hearts. And so he does, to this day."
At this point, Cloud gently broke in. "Children, do you remember what I told you a few years ago, when it was the Tenth Year?"
All four faces turned to him, eyes wide, and four heads nodded. Naminé spoke softly. "You said that all that year we had to stay inside during the full moon every month."
Cloud nodded. "To this day, the king is on the mountain. We didn't tell you this story then, because you girls were too little…it would have scared you. But now, every ten years it seems, the king must find a heart to eat. And, during the Tenth Year, whenever the moon is full it is dangerous to be out, whether you live in our village, or in any of the villages around this whole land…all the area that used to be his kingdom. For the king sends out a spell that chooses his next victim, and, once chosen, that person will be compelled to leave family and home, and go to the mountain…and never be seen again."
Real fear was beginning to dawn on the girls' faces, while Sora and Roxas glanced nervously at each other. Roxas finally asked, a squeak in his pre-adolescent voice, "Why don't they just ignore it? Why do they have to go? How do you get chosen anyway?"
Now Tifa answered, her voice somber and quiet. "It has been longer than my life since a sacrifice for the king was chosen from our village, yet I have heard stories from others. It is something like a bright falling star that comes during a full moon, yet no one can predict what month, and it falls onto a careless wanderer who dares to be out. It binds a circlet around their throat, and soon the circlet begins to squeeze. It forces them to the mountain."
Old Strife nodded. "When I was young, I saw it. A young girl…it found her. The circlet around her neck would squeeze and choke her, and it would only loosen when she walked toward the mountain. Soon, she had to leave or face strangulation, and the circlet continued to drive her on until she walked onto the mountain…and none ever saw her again."
Cloud spoke again, his voice serious. "That is why you children must be very careful during the Tenth Year – never go out after dark during any of the full moons. We want you to know this now, so that you can be prepared, and also so that you can understand, if you ever hear these stories passed around in the village."
Kairi now piped up with a question. "When is the Tenth Year, Daddy?"
Cloud looked at her kindly, smiling slightly. "Don't worry, Precious. The last one was when you were four – the next is not for another six years yet. How old will you be in six years?"
Kairi looked at the ceiling, deep concentration etched into her chubby features. "Ummm…"
After a long pause, the crease between Kairi's brows growing deeper and deeper, Naminé leaned over and whispered to her. "Fourteen!" Kairi cried happily.
Tifa smiled. "That's right. You'll be a big girl by that time, and you'll be sure to stay inside during the full moons, won't you?"
Kairi nodded vigorously. Naminé also nodded, joining in her agreement. Sora glanced over at them, then at Roxas, then at his mother. "Do we have to also? We're boys."
Old Strife spoke up, the serious tone back. "It makes no difference. Many boys as well as girls have been taken over the years. You must be careful too, Roxas, Sora."
Sora gaped, but his brother threw an arm around his neck. "We will, won't we, Sora? No problem!"
"Yeah!" Sora agreed, happy to have his brother on his side about something. "We'll be careful!"
"I'm glad to hear it." Cloud nodded approvingly.
"And now," Tifa broke in, "I think it's time for four little Strifes to head to bed." She gave a meaningful look at the children, and was not fazed by the ensuing whines and pleading. Tifa Strife wouldn't budge on bedtimes, and her word was law. The children were all soon bustled off to bed, wrapped up warmly against the chilly spring night, and the candle at last was doused.
Lying awake in the dark, drifting closer and closer to sleep, Roxas pondered the story of the Heartless King. All for pride, this good ruler had become a terrifying monster, alone throughout the centuries with no way to save himself…it was frightening, and yet, to Roxas it seemed somewhat pitiful too.
A rustling in the dark told him that Sora had rolled over, and soon his brother was whispering to him.
"Roxas…are you awake?"
"Yeah…what is it?" The blond replied in a whisper.
"I don't want to get eaten by the monster, Roxas…"
Roxas sighed. "Stupid," he whispered back. "You won't. Just be careful during the Tenth Year. Nothing to it. It's the safest curse I've ever heard of."
There was a pause, then another whisper, sounding more relieved. "You're right. Of course. Good night, Roxas."
"Good night, Sora."
With that, silence fell again, and soon Roxas was listening to Sora's heavy, even breathing. Still, images of the lonely monster atop the mountain drifted around in his mind. The king, the castle, the fairy princess and the monster…all danced about in his imagination until he drifted into dreams, never noticing the difference between being asleep and awake.
The spring planting gave way to the long, golden days of summer, and soon they too changed, becoming the hurry and tumble of fall harvest with a new nip in the air. Sora and Roxas grew stronger and more useful in the fields and never ceased competing, each measuring their height carefully, squabbling over half-inch differences.
Fall grew cold and dark and became winter, and Kairi and Naminé spent a great deal of time becoming more helpful in the kitchen. Roxas' voice began to break and deepen, much to Sora's dismay. However, spring was soon back again with more planting and work to be done, and soon the year had turned round again, and it was Sora's turn to happily hear his own voice change, though by now he wished the change was over, since Roxas' was nearly done.
Another year went by, and another, the seasons chased one another's tails round and round, the village rose and fell with the cycles of the year, smiling and breathing and staying very much as it always had. Children had growth spurts, and both Sora and Roxas took turns bravely gritting their teeth through the pains in their legs, secretly taking every delight in their mother's occasional sympathy and their sisters' gentle pampering during the worst. Especially as their sisters grew and became lovely young ladies. Soon Naminé and Kairi had also begun to change from girls into capable young women, each attracting the eyes of the other lads in the village, and both a pride and joy to their big brothers, who defended them with threatening glares at the younger, infatuated pups.
And so the turning of the years and the slow march of fate brought the twins to their fourteenth year, and Roxas to his eighteenth – the first year he would be properly called a man in the village – and Sora to his seventeenth, ever just a step behind his adored older brother.
In the meantime, the years had also stolen something precious from the Strifes – Old Strife had died one long, harsh winter, sadly well before his time. Illness took the old village leader from his children, and left Cloud as the new leader – one of the youngest that Strife's Ford had ever had. Thus, Old Strife never lived to see the next Tenth Year, nor the cruel twist of fate that it brought to his family.