Disclaimer: There is no spoon. The cake is a lie. I play in the sandbox, but the sandbox belongs to the big kids. Me and the rest of the My Little Ponies are just building castles with buckets and pretending that they're real :D I claim Rarity the Unicorn! She has long, pretty hair 0__0
A/N: Ugh. I had resolved to hang onto this til I'd finished responding to all reviews, but I am a) impatient, and b) sick of the sight of it. Do Not Like, and yet this is the result of a couple months of work DX I started writing this by hand during my computerdoom period, and had to stop after about eight pages because I felt the need to type it out. UGH. I'M SO SICK OF WRITING THINGS AND THEN HATING THEM. Hopefully, others will like it, and in specific my Sarah, since she's the one it was done for, when I was trapped in throes of missing her :) Hope you enjoy it, love. /goes and rolls around and staples hand to various fixtures in punishment for suckage/
Jesus H, it took a long time to upload this document.
On a Night Like This
I suggest we stay indoors tonight, our problems are immense;
I wouldn't go out on a night like this for a dollar and sixty cents!
~ 'Hallowe'en is Grinch Night', Dr. Seuss
The sunset serving as a backdrop to the peaceful sprawl of Radiant Garden was a gentle affair. While it stained various blooming pinks and golds across the firmament, the town's inhabitants continued on their daily business, secure in the knowledge that it would carry them tranquilly into nightfall, where they would eat and rest.
Children played in yards, or roamed the quiet streets, while their older counterparts alternated between parenting through windows and enjoying the last few moments of solitude before dusk drove their charges indoors, demanding food like birds. Shop owners farewelled their last customers of the day, while workers saw themselves home. It was a typical end to a typical day, in the lives of the men and women in an almost typical town.
The long, cool shadow of the great, towering mountain, at the base of which Radiant Garden snugly sat, reached with serene placidity across the buildings and hills, heralding the winking new stars, coming out one by one like miniature night-lights.
On a grassy slope near to the craggy mountain rocks, one spike-haired teenage boy paused in his final task before night swept fully across the land, in amidst the sharp, rhythmic singing of grasshoppers. Shirt off and sweaty, nails filthy and a shovel grasped tightly in sun-browned hands, his blue eyes took in the sky's free beauty, a slight sigh brushing past his lips. He straightened slowly, slightly burnt shoulders rolling, neck twisting to the side as he worked out an ache in his muscles, taking a moment to relax in the last amber rays of light.
There was a grunt close by, followed by the blade of a second shovel slamming into softened earth. "Sora," Leon growled across the trench they had spent the day digging, "keep working."
"Aw, come on, Leon," the brunet returned lightly. "We've only got ten minutes of daylight left."
"Exactly," the older male replied blankly, as if this perfectly proved his point, and why was there a disagreement if Sora understood?
With a hidden smile and a short breath, Sora continued as bidden, arms working to excavate a storm channel through the large communal fresh produce garden for the coming winter months. Along from he and Leon, Cloud's distinctive blond head could be seen bobbing as the man worked without having even faltered, ignoring all distractions, attempting, like Leon, to get as many shovelfuls of dirt out of the ground as possible before darkness claimed their workspace. Sora could even have imagined the two determined men working well into the night, if only Aerith hadn't chosen that moment to appear over the hill, from the direction of the derelict old house that the self-proclaimed Maintenance Committee inhabited.
He caught sight of her gratefully, sending over a bright smile and a wave that she returned with affection. She bent at the distant garden's edge and collected their discarded shirts from the grass, her large, loose boots treading carefully over the masses of soil, woodchips and manure towards them. By this point, Leon had noticed Sora's renewed lack of activity with yet another frown, but upon turning and seeing Aerith's progress, he resigned himself to the end of the work day – he knew she wouldn't stand for any of them staying out hungry and cold among the mosquitos, inarguably the matriarch of the Committee, for all her gentle words and smiles.
Sensing the sudden pause, Cloud also stopped, glancing first at Leon, and then over his shoulder at Aerith, before letting out a soft, "Ah," of understanding. The two men exchanged wry glances, while Sora happily tossed his shovel to the ground and waited for her to be close enough to cry out to. Reluctantly, Leon and Cloud followed suit, brushing their palms against their pants and eyeing the day's efforts.
Sora had just started moving to meet Aerith, when the woman, still only halfway across the broad garden, stopped abruptly, apparently without reason, a frown sharply tugging at her features. Sora hesitated, the smile fading on his mouth as she angled her chin into the air with a flicker of unease. Then, darting the male trio a quick, worried look, she performed what was unmistakeably a sniff – she was… smelling the air?
Alarm spread across her face in seconds. Forgetting the languid calm of the vanishing sun, she hurried the rest of the way to join them, their shirts clutching tightly, a cold breeze sweeping her pink skirt to the side. "The wind," she called fearfully, the instant she was within range. Puzzled, Leon and Cloud mimicked her, raising their faces into the steadily stiffening gust that swept in from the east, the direction of the mountain. Sora copied, sniffing quizzically. He could smell the scents that hung heavily over the garden, the stench of the compost, the manure, the ground-up blood-and-bone combination that drifted from the nearby flower garden that Aerith personally tended to each and every day – but none of these everyday aromas could be what was causing her sudden skittishness. These were odours that Aerith practically lived on.
Evidently, this was the reaction that Cloud was experiencing as well, judging by the confused shrug he sent her. But Leon, either possessing a keener sense of olfaction or perhaps with his nose at just the right angle, went rigid, chin snapping back down a moment later, eyes wide. He stared as Aerith finally caught up to them, dark clouds beginning to blow swiftly in overhead, seemingly out of nowhere.
Sora glanced up at the darkening sky, caused both by the suddenly overcast weather and the sun vanishing past the horizon, only a weak glow left now. He stretched onto his toes as Aerith handed them their chilled shirts, lifting his head right up to Leon's level, regretting it instantly – a foulness pervaded the air, swirled along it like an alien force; sour-sweet, oily, coating his throat as he breathed it deep, making him cough and struggle not to gag as he thumped back down onto his heels. It wasn't quite the smell of death, it was somehow less natural than that, but still contained that hideous reek that related it somehow to vile decay, and he felt like he'd swallowed a mouthful of it.
"You smell it, right?" Aerith asked anxiously, green eyes ticking from one male to the next.
Leon nodded tersely while Sora gasped at the fresher air down low, but now that, too, was beginning to adopt the same taste, feel, smell that the upper currents were poisoned with. Cloud looked perplexed for only a few moments longer, before it hit him, face twisting briefly in revulsion. "I don't damn well believe it," he softly exclaimed, grim dread filling every word.
"We won't have time to get home from here," Leon said, frustrated, and as if to confirm this, there was a sudden strobe of lightning in the rapidly blackening sky, the stinking wind picking up sharply in answer.
Bewildered, Sora demanded, "What the hell is that? What's going on?" He tugged his black tee roughly over his head and down, hair rumpled, gathering the collar and tugging it back up over his assaulted mouth and nose, hoping to filter his inhalations.
Aerith shot him an uncertain look, hands knotting fretfully against her chest. "Oh, Sora… you wouldn't even have been around yet the last time it happened – the last time she came."
Utterly uncomprehending, he echoed, muffled, "'She'?"
There was a pause between the four of them, in which the blowing wind moaned mournfully, building greater with every passing minute, accompanied by another flash of lightning, closer than before. Sora flinched against the icy drops of water that began dotting his skin from above.
"…Maleficent," Cloud quietly told him. Then, to the others, "We'd better get some shelter, this storm's going to explode."
"Storm?" Leon muttered. "There was nothing there five minutes ago."
Sora's hand caught the blond's arm before he could leave, however, the shirt dropping from his face, a nervous laugh rising in his throat as he scornfully said, "Oh, come on, Maleficent's a bedtime story to scare kids into coming home for dinner. She's not real, she's – is she?" he suddenly asked, struck by the stony expressions pointed his way.
After a moment of silence, Leon took command. "Everybody, the tool shed's nearby. We'll have to take cover there and hope for the best."
Aerith's face cleared slightly, with a nod. "There's a bolt on the inside."
"And sledgehammers for weapons," Cloud pointed out flatly, bending and picking up Sora's discarded shovel before heading over for his own.
"Why does the tool shed have a bolt on the inside?" Sora wondered weakly, awash with confusion and a reflection of the tightly controlled fear of the other three.
"For situations like this," Leon grunted, grabbing his own dull-bladed shovel from the earth. Aerith just sent him a concerned smile that didn't reach her eyes.
Thunder rumbled across the hills, shaking the air around the high-reaching mountain, Cloud and Leon following Aerith's rapid steps while she guided Sora over towards the dark outline of the shed among the deepening shadows. "Listen," Cloud said, and they all stilled briefly. For several heartbeats, all Sora could hear was the increasing howl of the wind as the absolute last vestiges of light left the world, steeping them in a thick gloom. The temperature was dropping rapidly, causing Sora to shiver with the perspiration that still clung to his skin from the physical effort of the digging.
His voice hushed, Cloud repeated, "Listen."
"…The lake," Aerith murmured, and attuning his ears, Sora could hear the water of the town's large lake around the far side of the mountain bubbling and growling like a living thing, the wind slicing against the disturbed waves in a way he could only vaguely recall ever hearing.
Then, as the gusts picked up even further, there came howls from the distant woods, high and cold. Sora crossed his arms tightly over his stomach, demanding in a small voice, "What is that?"
"…Just wolves," Leon said softly, head high into the wind, eyes darting through the darkness. "They can feel it, too."
More howls, chilling, agitated. Flocks of nesting birds took flight, startled by the combined chaos of the new night, flooding out of the forest and heading elsewhere, screeching all the while.
Uneasily, Leon added, "Time to go." He and Cloud carried the shovels, while Aerith clutched Sora's arm in a vice grip, the boy fighting off a wince as her fingers dug in. She steered him forcefully the rest of the way to the shed, going now as much on memory as eyesight with the world a distracting mixture of sound and sensation, and always that same awful smell. The two men brought up the rear as the wind swept hard enough to stagger their steps, the faint shadows of the trees bending and swaying under the storm's building power. The rain came faster and faster, finally breaking into a full, violent downpour.
Aerith was the first to reach the shed, fingers releasing their piercing grip on Sora, going to the dripping latch, nails slipping and clicking against the metal as she tried to loosen it from its position, embedded and rusted with age. A moment later, Leon's arm stabbed past, Aerith snatching her hands back as he grabbed hold of the latch and wrenched it up, giving the door a sharp push, his startled cry swallowed up as the wind snarled, snatching it from his grasp and slamming it inwards against its hinges with a deafening crash. The three of them jerked back, only to have Cloud shove them forward from behind with the thick handles of the shovels, shouting fiercely, "In!"
With the storm erupting around their heads, they piled into the tool shed, Leon tossing his shovel to the cement floor, grabbing the door's metal edge and forcing it shut behind them. Breathless from the whipping elements, Sora swivelled in place, blinking owlishly through the pitch darkness, hearing the slamming grate of the heavy-duty bolt scraping into place, and the deep, aggressive rattle of the door as the gale pounded against it, demanding entry.
There was some clattering, the sound of someone knocking things over in the blackness, before a murmur of victory sounded out. A gas lamp hissed to life moments later, throwing harsh, bright illumination over the inside of the shelter, throwing Cloud's shadow out behind him against the wall and briefly blinding him as he removed his fingers from the pilot light.
The door still struggling against its confines like some kind of caged tiger, the wind howling more insistently than ever, Leon glanced about, before his grey eyes came to rest on a massive, silver tool chest. "Sora," he said shortly, and, needing no further encouragement, the boy hurried to join him as he bent down beside it, hands pressed to the cold edge. Together, they pushed the chest across the ground, the noise an elongated shriek of steel on stone, leaving a dark trail of scratches in its wake. Their combined strength sent it practically coasting along, its broad side slamming into the door with little effort, stilling it abruptly.
Instantly, the shed was quiet, the weather sounding muted in the new hush. Approvingly, Leon judged, "That should hold it nicely."
"Either that," Cloud contributed dryly, arms folding over his chest, "or it'll hold us nicely until she gets here – kind of like a packed lunch."
"That's enough of that," Aerith cut in sharply, effectively shaming him silent, a tug of guilt flashing through his otherwise stoic expression at the naked sound of her fear. The storm rose up, drumming a ceaseless tattoo against the roof, the wind lashing needle-thin sheets of rain against the east wall.
Into the vocal silence, Sora again said, "She." A perplexed frown in place, he gazed at each of the weary elders in turn. "Maleficent. You can't honestly be serious, you guys." He was faced with three blank expressions, insisting, "She's a fairy story!"
"Huh," Leon grunted. He sat heavily on the tool chest, pressing his head back against the cold door, tired all of a sudden. "A fairy story with teeth, maybe."
"Well," Aerith sighed, lowering herself down to sit on the floor, her back to a tall set of space-efficient shelves, "at least we're all safe for now, from the storm if nothing else…"
Cloud sank down beside Leon on the chest, resting his elbows on his knees and scowling at his pressed-together thumbs. An air of glumness had fallen over them, Sora the only one not indulging, too busy grappling with the incredulous idea of what they were suggesting. Maleficent?
Well, like Aerith had said, at least they were safe. Sora just wasn't so hot on that whole 'for now' business.
Lightning flashed and thunder crashed, rain pouring down from the black sky.
High above Radiant Garden, high beyond the reach of most memories, an ancient castle stood, aged sentinel to the town far, far below. Once a birthplace to long-dead monarchs, now it stood like a vulture, dark, narrow windows like so many eyes slicing its crumbling faces and towers.
Thorns without any flowers to counterpoint crawled like ivy up the walls, twisting around balconies, tangling and knotting the exposed walkways and railings. Few had ever attempted to enter the place uninvited, but those that had had inevitably scratched against one of the stinging spines and fallen into an endless, rotting slumber.
Maleficent was not one to welcome guests.
On this night, stirred from her own long sleep by that familiar sour-sweet stench blowing through the cracks and disintegrating gaps in the castle, between bricks and crumbling mortar and damp-eaten wood, Maleficent stood on the broad balcony outside the tallest tower, tasting the rain as it hammered down around her, sliding between thin, cruel lips. Her black robes hung to the ground, spreading out like darkness itself around her feet, the straggling hem writhing slowly like a conscious entity. One thin, bejewelled hand was stretched out to the side, clutching a gnarled black staff, an orb radiating a sickly green glow clutched as if between talons at its tip, the illumination falling across her, showing her pallor like that of a cadaver. Her eyes, irises that exact same, somehow nauseating green, piercing the night, fixed unwaveringly down, over the balcony's edge, as they regarded the distant specks of light denoting the town below.
Her bloodless mouth curled into a smile, quiet, smooth voice unrolling from between her teeth. "What a delightful evening." She surveyed the darkness, the small smile like ice on her face. "What a delightful evening for pain and mayhem, while the little ones shiver in their beds… Riku!" She lifted her staff, slammed it down imperiously against the balcony, an invisible pulse of energy spluttering outward. Seconds passed. Irritation flashed over her emaciated features, volume rising harshly as she again commanded, "Riku!" She twisted, glaring at the still doors behind her. "Where are you, imbecilic child?" She slammed the staff down a second time, the pulse stronger, the rain shuddering around her as the silent force slammed outward.
At last, the old, gracefully ornate handle shifted, clicking and creaking as it lowered. Carefully, the door was pulled open a crack, thin, threadbare lace curtains swaying faintly, one dull, wary aquamarine eye and a sliver of pale, haggard face appearing. A soft voice enquired, "Yes, Maleficent?"
All honeyed tones and pleased malignance, she turned back to the view, the crawling hem of her robes disturbing the forming puddles. "Riku… isn't it the most delightful evening?" She inhaled deeply, savouring the bitterness of the wind, exclaiming, "Oh, smell that freedom. This night is perfect, it shall be mine, the first in so very many years." Voice changing like the crack of a whip, she barked, "Get the carriage ready, and be quick about it. We haven't time for your obligatory blundering. I want to be in the streets of that pitiful little settlement before midnight – there is much to be done."
When several seconds passed without any audible sounds of motion, her head snapped around to the side, words cold as she demanded, "What are you waiting for? I won't say it again, child."
Slowly, daring no further hesitation, the silver-haired male backed away from the sickly radiance of the green-lit rain, the door quietly shutting again as he moved, reluctance in his ailing soul, to do her bidding, leaving her to while away the time, hungrily anticipating vile deeds.
In the tool shed at the mountain's base, life was grim, and cold. The rain might not have been granted access beyond the metal joins of the walls and roof, but the surplus of steel plus the unforgivingly heat-leeching concrete floor had turned the shelter into an icebox. Breaths steamed from between pale lips, the four inhabitants huddled into themselves, the half-empty gas lamp hissing noisily in the corner.
All was silent save for the elements knocking and pounding and snarling for entry. The storm had been increasing steadily from the moment they bolted the door, the wind being the very worst part of all, shoving at the shed, a big bad wolf with lungs that had infinite capacity, breath that wouldn't cease in its attempt to batter down the little stronghold of, not little pigs, but sitting ducks.
Sora sighed, frustrated with the collection of tight expressions, the absolute lack of speech, as if some invisible timepiece was ticking away in the background, counting down to a gruesome doom of unknown origins. He had been shifting impatiently for twenty minutes in the stillness, before finally snapping, feeling that even seconds longer would leave him completely stir-crazy from the strain. "Come on, you guys! Lighten up," he ordered, voice higher than usual. "We're going to be in here for a while – can't we play I-Spy or something?"
There was an endless pause, in which Sora's spirits sank, before Leon's mouth twisted. "I spy a chainsaw and a pot of dirt," he deadpanned.
"All the better to cut up your body and bury you with, my dear," Cloud replied, pressed against his side on the chest.
"Oh, don't, please," Aerith murmured, from her position hunched up beside Sora, struggling to preserve some heat between herself and the teen. "What a revolting idea."
"And that's not how you play, anyway," Sora grinned. When he yet again received a round of hollow looks, he threw up his hands in exasperation, bumping Aerith with his shoulder. "And here I thought we were making progress. You guys! Sheesh! What part of 'Maleficent isn't real' are you not getting? Do you actually believe that some old witch got cursed by three good fairies to be trapped inside some lost, forgotten castle except for when a sour-sweet wind blows? It is classic campfire material – in other words, completely untrue."
"And the fact that the last time it happened, a bunch of people ended up dead in their beds, with three quarters of the town's livestock gutted in paddocks – what do you make of that, Sora?" Cloud asked impatiently. The boy snorted.
"Is that your basis for this? It's superstition. Everyone knows that was just a bad winter, and the wolves got the livestock."
"It didn't happen over the course of a winter," Cloud growled, "it was all in a single night, just one. You weren't even born then."
"And what were you, like, four?"
"Maleficent is real," Leon said quietly, his calm voice cutting through the argument, somehow managing to drag the tension up several notches. As his grey eyes met with Sora's, the teen felt a tingle at the back of his neck. "I can prove it, right here and now." All eyes were upon him, as he held his hand out to Cloud a moment later and said, "Phone?"
Cloud stared for a few seconds, before comprehension dawned. He dug into his pocket and pulled out his ever-present cell. Handing it over, he supposed, "We need to make sure everyone knows at the house, I guess."
Leon nodded shortly, and, while Sora watched on in mystification, quickly dialled, holding it to his ear as it began to ring. Each trill of the tone was easily audible, only three of them passing before Yuffie's loud voice could be heard crackling out, "Cloud! Where are you guys?!"
"It's me," Leon said.
There was a slight pause, before Yuffie, sounding suddenly delighted, exclaimed, "Squall? Hey, Squall, hey –"
"Guess what we're having? Guess what's going on outside?!" She drew a breath. "It's a squall!" She broke off into mad laughter, Leon's expression stonier than ever as he waited for the incorrigible girl to settle.
At last, as she started gulping for air, he asked resignedly, "How long have you been saving that up?"
"Years, Leon," Yuffie crackled back accusingly. "You are never around at the right time!"
There was a long moment of silence, before she answered seriously, "Yeah. Cid's on the job." Sora sat straighter, incredulity showing.
"Not Yuffie, too!"
Leon flashed him a quelling look. "Yuffie, we're in the tool shed behind the main garden. We're holed up for now, but I need to know if and when we look like being in immediate danger. Go find Cid, then call me back. Preferably with good news."
"Sure thing, el Capitan," came the distorted response. "Over and out." The dial tone was significantly quieter than the ninja's voice, a measure of peace being found in the comparative hush.
Sora was quick to break it. "What is going on here, you guys? Maleficent – is she really, truly out there?"
Aerith let out a small, anxious breath. "We'll find out soon enough – when Yuffie calls back."
Shaking his head slowly, Sora settled down to wait, still awash in a bewilderment that refused to loosen its grip. He pulled his fingers through his hair, absently separating the brown spikes, listening to the rain hammer down against their little shelter. The four of them loosing little plumes with each exhalation, the temperature seemed to be dropping by a degree with every long minute.
He wondered exactly what the heck it was that Yuffie was meant to be doing. If he'd been stuck here with anyone but the present company, he'd never have believed a word of it, not for a second; but seeing Aerith so tight-lipped, and Leon and Cloud sitting side by side in a far graver silence than usual, he couldn't help but feel his disquiet rise. He wasn't so sure about the verity of Maleficent, but one way or another, something was definitely happening which was out of the ordinary. He couldn't remember ever seeing this steady bunch of people looking so spooked.
A frown settling over his face, Sora drew a breath, started to ask what had been tickling the back of his mind for a while now: "If it really is Maleficent, if she really is real, then how come nobody ever –?" Cloud's ring tone cut him off.
Leon shot him a hard look, said, "Because we just try to forget her," then snapped open the phone and asked, "Well?"
This time, it was Cid's voice that came blaring out overloud from the small speaker. "Leonhart, you screwy motherfucker. What in the great God almighty are you doin', getting caught out in the middle of a freakin' vegetable patch when I can see that witch comin' down the mountain?"
Everyone in the shed tensed, Sora's lips parting in shock as Aerith covered her mouth with one hand, eyes sliding shut. Leon's hand clenched around Cloud's cell phone, jaw hardening. "What's her status?" he asked, nails curling in on his free palm. "Where is she?"
The Committee house was a ramshackle old place, built up and repaired from one end to the other for the purpose of communal habitation for its members, somewhere to live and eat when they weren't in the winter off-season, when the snows came and the house was a frozen death trap. In a couple months, they'd disband and head elsewhere til the warmer months rolled back in, but until then, the house was occupied, and wedged in the small space of the attic sat Cid, smoking like a chimney, with Yuffie hovering anxiously behind him, holding the phone to his ear.
The man sat on a stool, hunched over an archaic telescope which had been modified with extra magnification and pointed directly up at the mountain, never to be moved unless in an emergency – nights like this. It had been a long time since anyone had used it, but Cid had been maintaining it, old enough to remember the last time it had been needed, used by the previous occupants of the house, who had turned up dead in their beds. Oh, yes – Cid had been caring for it well.
His work-hardened fingers gently twisted the dials and dull knobs, bringing the mountaintop into clear relief, the faint prick of acid green light glowing in the middle of an otherwise pitch black night.
"She's gettin' ready," he said into the phone, Yuffie's fingers shifting slightly, trying not to let her arm sag from holding it aloft for so long. "No doubt she'll be riggin' up and flying down on her broomstick or somethin'."
"You need to sound the alarm," Leon crackled, voice shifting with the disruption of the weather.
"I don't think there's a soul out there that doesn't recognise that smell and what it means." Cid squinted through the haze of cigarette smoke, glaring through the eyepiece.
"Still. Just in case."
Cid sighed, reached up and pulled the crushed butt from between his teeth. "Yuffie, go hit the button, wouldya? I don't want to take my eye offa that prime bitch even for a second." He shrugged a shoulder up as she balanced the phone between his jaw and neck, clamping it in place as he continued to peer through the telescope, cigarette smouldering gently from between two fingers. The ninja didn't have to go far – a bullhorn had long been set up at the tightly shut attic window, all she had to do was force the disused latch open and swing the glass out. Then, it was only a matter of, as Cid had said, hitting the button and –
– a blasting bleat rang out across the valley and town, unmistakeable, impossible to ignore. In the homes of Radiant Garden, there wasn't a soul on this night that now didn't know the threat that was out there, approaching. It shivered up the mountain's rocky sides, dipping into crags and echoing through gaps, carried by the foul wind around and around, until the faintest whispering murmur made its way towards the top.
Hair blowing around his face, blinking against the icy bite of the unending wind, Riku's head lifted at the slight noise, eyes turning down towards the town. So, they knew, then. Good. That was good. And, sure enough, the little scattering of lights suddenly burned brighter, the myriad of people living at the mountain's base, under its shadow, knowing by now how best to repel the demonic witch. Not that it would save them all… Maleficent controlled this night. This night was her night, and there were lives down there that would never be the same again. Lives that wouldn't even be, come morning.
And he – he was carrying her to them.
Rain slammed down to earth around him, turning dirt to mud, mud to sludge, washing away the sides of the mountain, exposing roots and beating scrubby plants to within an inch of their struggling lives. His hands changed their grip on the long struts extending from Maleficent's carriage, leather straps tight around his wrists, binding him to the wood, tight enough so that he could hardly feel his fingers. He had no shirt, no shoes, his hair hanging down in lanky clumps the wetter it got, framing his narrow face, shoulders heavy with burden both physical and otherwise as his hold tightened. Toes digging into the wet ground, arms hardening as he signed the first letter of his name onto someone's death warrant down below, Riku slowly lifted the heavy, two-wheeled trap from its angled position on the ground.
From behind, he heard a snort of derision, his face twisting around a little as Maleficent sneered down at the little town at the mountain's bottom. "They think they can protect themselves from me."
She sat regally upon the driver's short bench of what had once been a transportation carriage belonging to the royal family that had lived here at the castle. This particular small little thing had most probably been something low key, used by servants or delivery men, but the way she held her head high, the way she postured herself, she looked like some cold, mad queen of destruction. In one hand she held a tall, black whip, clutched tightly between clawed fingers as she glowered.
With one withering, "Fools," she loosed the whip from its long cane, whirled it behind her head and snapped it downwards. Riku flinched before it even hit him, the vicious pain coming a second later as it cracked against his skin. "Get going, boy."
Pain throbbing with each beat of his slow heart, the silver-haired boy turned his face to the front, hands tightening, toes digging into the sodden ground for a foothold, every muscle pulling and straining, teeth gritting together with the effort of that first step. He felt the trap begin to roll, neglected wheels letting loose a tortured groan. Though the earth was loose beneath his feet, he didn't dare to slip or stumble, knowing the bite of the whip all too well, knowing she'd easily flay his back open until it was split apart and bleeding; experience had taught the male that there was simply no limit to the witch's cruelty. All he could do was try to not exist, and hope she'd allowed it.
His legs found a stumping rhythm, muscles aching and struggling as he tugged the carriage through mud, over stones, away from the castle. The wheels rattled, trying to slow him up as they caught against sharp rocks, forcing him to yank the trap sharply, heart pounding hard, the whip coming snapping down against his flesh. His teeth clenched as he fought to hold down the small cries of pain that desperately wanted release every time the corded leather found his back, wet from the rain. His grunts and moans would come eventually, but he was keeping them inside as long as possible. He had no pride left; all he could do was try to deny her the pleasure of knowing she was hurting him.
The castle drew further back behind them, the storm raging on with full fury over the little town below, but for the most part leaving the mountain alone. Here, only the rain was granted access, no doubt as Maleficent wanted it. Riku couldn't think of a time when she hadn't got what she wanted.
Briefly, as he considered the deaths that were due this night, he found himself thinking distantly, through the pain and exhaustion, through the raindrops that hit his eyelids and made them flicker, of a once upon a time when he hadn't been a slave to the evil creature behind him. Granted, he had spent longer like this than he ever had as a free being; but his conscience demanded, each and every time that he carried the witch down to the innocents below – What are you doing here? If only your mother could see you now…
But as long as darkness continued to hold him, this would remain his fate. Deliverer of the damned, to the damned. Whatever his mother thought, in whatever lay after life, meant nothing to him like this.
Nothing could make this worse than it already was.
"Light. There needs to be more light." Leon was up and pacing, Cloud prowling the shelves, while Aerith sat with the bemused Sora on the ground. The dark-haired man shot them a glance, eyes narrowing slightly. "Sora. Help."
The boy scrambled to his feet, not knowing what he was even meant to be doing until Cloud muttered, "She can't face light, she's a creature of the dark. Flashlights, forgotten lanterns, anything we can get." He tossed a look over towards the gas lamp. "That will only last so long before the gas runs out. Why didn't anyone think to keep spare gas in here?" he bit off, frustrated, pawing through a collection of drills.
"I'm sorry," Leon snapped back quietly, "I wasn't aware that our contingencies were supposed to include being trapped in sheds. I'll be sure to make sure it's stocked up for next time, along with all the outhouses and rabbit warrens."
"We're in a shed, Leon," the blond returned exasperatedly. "There should be shit like this stacked up to the rafters."
"Shit like what, Cloud? I have axes, there're plenty of axes. Drills. Rakes, hoes, a leaf-blower even. I just flat out forgot to store the flammable gas in the metal shed during the hot months. Ridiculous, I know."
"I, um…" Sora was hesitant to draw their burning, frustrated attention his way. "I found a flashlight?" He held it up, a heavy-duty brick of a torch, and thumbed the button. Its beam glared out, cutting across like a solid column of yellow-white to the opposite wall.
"Great," Cloud mumbled. "We can shine her to death."
"Sora, it's yours now," Leon said shortly. "Are there any more of those around? Keep looking." The hunt continued, Cloud finding a long, slender aluminium flashlight, bright but pale, while Leon came across one like Sora's, only with a weak battery, the illumination dim. There were no others, and nothing else capable of producing light. Their arsenal looked meagre, but it was better than nothing, as Leon gloomily supposed.
"We'll wait for now," he said heavily, returning to his post at the door. "There's no point turning them on yet, while she's still further up. But when she starts to get lower, we'll get them all going, and hope they last the night. It's likely," he added grimly, "that she'll make a beeline for us. She'll know we're in here, and we're the most unlikely to have enough light to drive her off – plus, we're canned up like tuna."
"We won't give up without a fight," Aerith's trembling voice asserted.
"With that in mind…" Cloud walked to the gas lamp, touched the dial. "I'm turning this down until later. We need to conserve the gas." He twisted it, the loud hissing immediately dying down to a whisper of its former volume, the light barely enough now to show the shadows on their faces. They all huddled lower, disheartened by the darkness.
Sora felt Aerith slide an arm through his, holding him closer. "I'll keep you warm," she said, sounding terrified. He allowed her to pull him close, the suppressed panic contagious, his insides crawling with it. It was as much for himself as for her that he held her back, tightly. This just wasn't a level of fear the he knew how to deal with. Sitting here, like this… it was enough to rot the heart.
"We should try to rest up." Leon's voice was a husky whisper, affected by the depth of the gloom. "Close your eyes, try to relax a little. Save your strength."
Sora heard Cloud snort lightly. "As if you're going to close your eyes."
"Shut up." Despite the bickering, Sora could see in the faint shine the sight of their hands gripping one another between their bodies. It wasn't just Aerith who was scared, not by a long shot.
He hunched his shoulders up, beginning to shiver. Even clumped together as they were, there wasn't enough heat to stave off the chill that hung from every atom in the air. The icy metal that surrounded them, the hard cement beneath, it was like living inside a refrigerator. On any other night, such conditions would be unheard of, it was unnatural to be so cold at this time of year…
But then, Sora couldn't name anything about this night that was natural. All he could do was quiet his mind, sinking further into Aerith's chilly embrace, and close his eyes against the shadows. All he could really do was wait. There was nothing else for it. As the storm pounded harder and harder, the winds roaring across the valley, all they could do was wait for a nightmare.
There was no way that Leon's suggestion of rest could be taken seriously; the noise alone would have woken sleeping giants. Sora had never known that rain could be so violent, had never heard it attacking a structure with such ferocity as it seemed to be doing to their feeble shed. Add to that the fierce, thrashing hiss of the trees whipping around under the assault and it was a wonder none of them had yet lost their minds to the fear it all inspired.
'Twas a dark and stormy night. The standard beginning to tall tales, and with a witch coming down the mountain to boot, Sora could easily start to believe that he'd fallen into a fairy tale all of his own. But where was the knight in shining armour, come to slay the dragon? The prince, the superhero, the genetically modified dog? Stories weren't supposed to begin and end with the good guys trapped up in a tool shed.
It was difficult to gauge just how much time was passing, except that it almost certainly counted in hours. The only measure of change existed in the elements, the viciousness of the storm's temper, the shuddering of the shed's walls. That alone had slowed the world down to Sora's mind – it just never stopped, not even to give them a second to clear their heads, catch their breath from the small gasps that kept coming every time the lightning struck closer.
Gradually, a new sound superimposed itself over what had become a metronome of crashing and shaking; a deep, groaning, ominous noise, like a voice from the abyss – like some creature trying to claw its way out of a fresh grave. Sora's mind latched onto it, fed by the night's events so far, weaving increasingly frightening visions of what it might be, of what beast or fiend Maleficent had sent to perform the preliminary roundup of hostages and victims – the options were limitless.
Until, that is, Leon darkly predicted, "It's going to come down. We've got to get out there and do something."
Sora stared, wondering if the man had lost his mind, or at the very least severely misplaced it, when Cloud slowly stood up. "I've been thinking that for a while. It sounds like it's on its last legs."
Puzzled but cautiously hopeful, the boy interjected, "It's – dying, then?"
"I knew we should have cut it down last season," Leon muttered, running a tired hand over his face with a heavy breath.
"Cut it down last season," Sora echoed, less certain by the second. "You… know what it is?"
"Termites," Leon growled.
Sora blinked, and was saved from further imaginings by Cloud tossing him a look, explaining, "There's an oak out there that's been overrun with termites at its base. It looked like it was going to fall naturally, so we left it, but…"
"But…" Sora processed the information quickly, quietly relieved he hadn't voiced his child-like wonderings. Then, it suddenly occurred to him: "But the rain – I mean the wind – it's coming in from the east, right? And that's… where that old tree is…" He knew the one they meant – it was about forty years old, sturdy-looking and peaceful… in the right weather. With the winds ripping along at the rate that they had been, and getting only stronger the longer that the four sat there listening to it, it would be child's play for the rotting trunk to be pushed over onto them, even when it was leaning away from them.
"Hell," he commented distantly.
"Not yet," Cloud sighed, "but we're close."
"We'll take an axe," Leon said, standing, Sora scrambling up also, the three of them bunched together like this in the nothing-ish light feeling cramped and claustrophobic. "We'll grab some ropes, cut a wedge out, and try to direct its fall."
"Is this really necessary?" Aerith's voice entered the proceedings, slightly startling the males; she hadn't made a sound in so long, it was easy to forget she was there, at least in an advisory capacity. She had seemed the worst affected of them all by the thought of Maleficent, but her voice was steadier now than it had been all night. In the gloom, her eyes glinted faintly from where she remained sitting on the floor, as she asked again, the voice of reason and good sense, "Is it really necessary to go out there? Listen, Leon – listen to what is out there."
There was a pause, in which the storm bared its teeth and snarled, the walls shivering hard, the shelves that stood against them vibrating audibly. But there again, above and beyond it came the grim complaining of the tree, its horribly weakened roots unable to put up much of a fight. Knowing what was causing the sound wasn't actually making it much easier to accept, as far as Sora was concerned; the tree might be something corporeal and recognisable, but that didn't mean they weren't being threatened. In fact, this threat was kind of worse – it was harder to fight what was natural than that which wasn't.
"Aerith. We leave that thing standing now, and we'll be eating leaves before long," Cloud quietly said into the silence.
Leon, whose gaze was on the ceiling, watching the metal roof shudder, nodded slightly. "It's necessary."
The woman sighed, stood up and brushed off her skirt. "I'll come and hold a flashlight, then."
"No," Cloud instantly countered, flatly. "You're too light, Aer, you'll get bowled over the second you step outside."
Frowning deeply, Aerith argued, "But what about Sora? He's no heavier than I am."
Sora stiffened indignantly. "Am too! I am not in the girl's zone of weight!"
"We'll need someone who can open the door for us again, Aerith," Leon wearily called above the noise and voices. "And if one of us gets hurt, you need to be able to help him. I'm not trying to keep you locked up in here, if I thought you could help I'd take you straight out there and put you to work, but all you'd be is a liability." There was nobody quite like Leon to wield bluntness of speech like a bludgeoning instrument. Aerith, however, seemed slightly mollified, perhaps at the thought of being in her natural role as caretaker of the wounded, not to mention the slight reassurance that she wasn't being simply overlooked as a hysterical female.
Another blast of wind rocked the little shack, and the groaning of the tree came louder than ever. "We need to get a move on," Cloud advised grimly.
"Axe," Leon reminded, and went to the wall where the sharp instruments hung suspended across pegs that lined the metal, grabbing one and testing its edge, before saying, "Sora, you'll be in charge of the ropes and light. Grab three stout lengths, and bring your flashlight."
"Right." The boy crossed to the box of ropes, several bundles of them resting neatly on top of one another, and did as the man commanded. He looped the rope over his shoulder, feeling the weight of it dig through the thin fabric of his tee. Hefting it more securely, he clutched his flashlight tightly, feeling like there should have been more preparation than this – but the fact remained that they were as ready as they were going to be.
"Okay. Listen out for us," Leon told Aerith, who nodded shortly. "Bolt the door after we leave." He hesitated. "But… if it sounds like she's come, don't open it again. If she catches us out there…"
"She isn't going to," Cloud interrupted idly, fingering the ropes slung across Sora, inspecting their width. "It's too soon."
"Who can tell how fast a witch moves?"
"I'm sure we'll be fine, guys," Sora chimed in. He smiled at Aerith. "Just make sure to let us back in quickly, because we'll probably be freezing our asses off." She smiled back, crookedly, and the three males gathered around the door. Cloud and Leon each took a handle of the tool chest in one hand and lifted it this time, swinging it out of the way. The door instantly resumed its restless banging against the hinges, sounding trapped and desperate. Sora eyed it warily, as Aerith stepped forward to disengage the bolt. Now, only the regular latch was keeping it shut.
Leon twisted the door handle and nearly got the middle of his face sliced in half as the wind punched straight through the gap, the man ducking out of the way only just barely in time, catching the metal edge hard against his toe instead. "Jesus!" he grunted explosively between clenched teeth, but in the next moment, grabbed hold of the door and steadied its swinging. It wasn't easy, by the looks of it – Sora could see it shaking in his grasp, his knuckles going pale from holding on so tightly. "Out, get out," Leon tersely commanded, and Cloud disappeared into the darkness. Sora took a breath, and plunged after him.
In a way, it was quieter out here, was Sora's first thought. The rain drove down as punishing as ever, but slammed to dull earth, rather than ringing sheets of steel. This, however, wasn't really much of an improvement. The rain stang, it bulleted their exposed arms and faces without reprieve, painfully cold, and hard. It was only a matter of minutes before Sora felt numb all over, the sensation lost in his skin. All he could feel was the impact as the drops continued to relentlessly smash against him, but between the roar of thunder overhead, the blinding, disorientating bursts of lightning, and the constant buffeting bullying of the wind, it was impossible to focus on.
He didn't realise that he'd been standing there, almost frozen in place by the shock of the assault, until a large, cold hand dropped on his shoulder, startling him. "Turn your flashlight on!" Leon called into his ear, and, jumping and fumbling, the boy moved to obey. The bright beam of light that had seemed so formidable within the confines of the shed pierced feebly through the all-encompassing blackness, barely ghosting the trunk of the dying tree when Leon took hold of his wrist and forcibly twisted it around to illuminate it.
It was about twenty feet away, set on a grassy incline, and even from here, Sora could see it listing dangerously, swinging viciously with the wind. With Leon's hand shifting to his shoulder now, he was steered towards it, a second hand from Cloud pressing against his back, helping to push him up the hill. The wind was speeding right into their faces, stinging their eyes, making it a test of endurance just to reach the tree, to make it up there without being swept backwards. Sora's sneakers threatened to slip and slide with every step, only the knot that the three of them had become preventing him from tumbling back the way he'd come to go slamming into the broad side of the shed.
Gripping the flashlight hard between shaking, shivering hands, cold down to his bones, Sora battled with the other two until they reached the gradually falling tree, deaf to anything but the deep, angry voices of the storm. Leon squeezed his shoulder hard to stop him, and pointed to the tree, yelling what would no doubt have been something informative if Sora had been able to hear it. Forced to guess his directions, Sora unslung the ropes from around his neck and shoulder, tossing them to the ground within easy reach, and broke away from the other two, staggering around to a point where he could shine the torch more clearly upon the tree. Apparently satisfied with this, Leon and Cloud, heads bent against the weather, circled the trunk in search of the right place to cut into it.
After several minutes of shouted discussion, Cloud returned to Sora, fighting to stay upright, hair and clothing sweeping back hard. When Sora briefly shone the flashlight into his face, he saw that the man had donned a pair of sunglasses, darkening his vision but protecting his eyes from the driving rain. Nodding shortly at the boy and then over at the tree, Cloud bent and collected the rope, Sora obediently turning the torch beam to the worksite. The blond stumped back towards Leon, and the two of them swiftly, expertly, undid the containing knots keeping the lengths in order and laid them out. With fistfuls of rope, they went to each side of the tree, stretching them around, pulling hard so that they were standing facing the shed down the incline.
Already knowing what to do, Sora shielded his face from the downpour with a forearm and trudged over to them, arriving in time to take over Leon's side, the man picking his axe up from where he'd left it on the earth. He pulled tightly at the rope ends, trying to mimic Cloud, twisting them around his fits and hauling back with his entire body, while keeping the flashlight beam as steady as he could upon the centre of the trunk, hopefully where Leon needed it to be.
Approaching the tree warily, like a seasoned fighter facing a foe, Leon hefted the axe in both hands, eyeing off the sodden bark. For a moment, as he stood there preparing himself, feet spreading apart for balance, arms lifting the axe up and holding it out from his body, swinging slowly in an upward motion towards the base of the trunk, Sora thought that he looked like he was getting ready for a day playing baseball – if only. What he wouldn't have given to be in the daylight, playing games, instead of standing here in this deluge of a tempest, readying to fell a tree.
Never one to waste time, Leon, in the next minute, struck hard and fast. Sora felt the jolt all the way down the rope, gasping as it yanked him a step forward.
From there, the nightmare took shape.
Sora heard Leon's startled cry somewhere in the tumult, heart constricting sharply at the sudden panic in it, mind leaping to all imaginable horrors in a split-second, never realising that, once again, the thing to fear was that which was as solid and real as his feet upon the ground.
The axe had passed straight through the rotten trunk as if it had been made of wet paper. The blade had ripped through it, and the tree's tenuous grip on solidity was devastated. It began to fall, and, unprepared for such an event, Cloud and Sora were dragged along by its incredible weight. They had no time to anticipate it, no time to struggle, as its heavy branches slammed directly onto the shed, the exact opposite way that they had planned, with Aerith still inside.
The noise was incredible, as if the little building was being blasted apart, but to be honest, the horror of it was lost upon Sora. Tumbling end over end, anchorless and unconscious, the boy was swept fiercely down the hill, away from the shed, the garden, and anyone who could possibly help. He landed at the mountain's base, splashing into the crystal-clear stream that passed through its rocky insides and over to the distant lake, and was swallowed beneath the surface, carried away, far from anywhere that light could reach.
The world was… cold. And dripping; it was a constant noise, a high, persistent pinprick in the silence. It came again, and again, touching at Sora's dull consciousness until his eyelids began to flicker. He became slowly aware of wetness, icy beneath his cheek, along his entire body, limbs cold enough to hurt, to ache, to make him part his lips and groan quietly to an empty void. His voice was faint, strained, as if he'd spent an hour screaming his lungs out.
A breath whispered out of him, one blue eye cracking open in time to see the last of the steam fade away, and like a switch being thrown, Sora was suddenly shivering. Oh, God, it was cold! His hands found slick mud, body pried up from its sticky grip with a sucking sound and a muffled grunt complete with a hiccoughing mouthful of water from his stomach. He spat it out, coughing weakly, and held himself up for a moment, the shaking of his arms loosing globs of mud to drop back to… the soaking shore of a stream?
At last, awareness of his surroundings began to filter into the boy's mind, eyes blinking widely around as he eased back onto his heels, the left side of his body caked from head to toe in mud, the rest of him wet through to the skin. Water was flowing quietly just a few inches behind him, lapping at his sodden soles, his gaze, as he twisted to blankly look at it, drawn inevitably over to where it exited from a dark hole in the mountain. He sat there for a moment, staring, pieces of puzzle slowly shifting into place. The dripping continued, from the leaves of twisted, scrubby trees growing in the mountain's harsh, rocky landscape. The rain, however, had stopped for now.
Sora gulped, abruptly bringing up another swallow of water a moment later, hacking it out onto the ground, and began coughing harshly. Clearing his throat hard between gasps, trying to rid his airway of the fluid, the brunet crawled away from the water's edge, fearful, as the fierce wind swept through his little pocket of existence, that he would be washed back in.
He'd lost a sneaker, he realised as he turned himself over, limbs stiff. With rope-burned fingers, he reached up and clumsily drew tracks down the mud painting the left half of his face, trying to scrape the clinging substance away. The tip of his shoeless foot was sinking into the mud; he had to pull it back out, peeling the heavy sock away from the frozen skin and discarding it with a wet splat. Shuddering convulsively, consciousness still only returning degrees at a time, he absently massaged his icy foot with equally bloodless fingers.
Memories were hard to come by. When he closed his eyes, he could – almost feel an impact on the side of his head, where the mud was trickling and hardening; but he had no recollection of anything hitting him. One shaking hand lifted, hovering uncertainly over his left temple. Fingertips pushed carefully through dripping spikes of crusted brown hair, touching the cold surface of his scalp and slowly shifting in search of a numbed landmine.
It had only taken seconds to locate, tight, swollen knot that it was. He sucked in sharply at the expectation of pain, but none came. The cripplingly heatless conditions had their benefits. Had it been the tree? The ground? Sharp motion, and then pain. That was all Sora could remember. The sensation of his arms just about wrenching from their sockets, the dismayed realisation that the brightest flashlight they had had popped from his grasp… and nothing. A big, fat blank taunted him.
Well, conclusion enough could be drawn from his current state and location. He'd been washed under the mountain; had come out God only knew where, because when he twisted cautiously to survey the landscape, all he saw were red and brown boulders, scrubby grass patches with sparse vegetation to match. Mountain as far as the eye could see, somewhere along the path to the lake. No sign of the green hills he could so easily recognise as Radiant Garden territory.
Anxiety twisted through him as the enormity of the situation began to seep through the thin fog inhabiting his brain… but then, his legs weren't injured at all, and if he could stand, then he could walk out of this place, right? Sitting and staring at everything wasn't going to get him home. And – he needed to know if Cloud and Leon were all right. And Aerith, come to think of it. He hoped to God that they were all safe, but he wasn't going to find any damn thing out until he got moving.
With a breath of commitment, hoping no lasting damage had been caused to his head or any other part of his body, Sora pushed his hands down into the sodden ground, feeling it ooze between the splits between fingers. It took a few seconds, his strength at a low ebb, but with effort he managed to lever himself away from the mud and up onto his feet. He suffered an uneasy minute of light-headed dizziness, but the sensation passed on its own, the fog gradually dispelling, leaving him bleakly aware of every aspect of the surrounding world and a vague, unhappy understanding that pain was hiding behind veils which would begin falling sooner rather than later…
No matter. Now; since he had presumedly entered from within the mountain itself, and that was obviously not a possibility for retracing, weakened, frozen, and not knowing even how far he'd been brought – the answer could only then be to follow the stream in the opposite direction, until it led him directly to the lake. From there, reaching town would be a cakewalk.
Decision made, throwing only last glance over towards the black hole that had ejected him back out into the night, Sora turned and shuffled off into unknown territory, listening to the distant murmur of the storm as it grumbled between one wave and the next.
The storm, though born of the tainted nature of the sour-sweet wind, was nonetheless destined from conception to fade and die.
As if the loss of Sora and near-destruction of the tool shed had acted like a sacrifice to the elements' fury, the terrible force of the wind and rain had eased somewhat. Too dangerous yet to venture out into, it had at least calmed to the point where it wouldn't finish the job the fallen tree had initiated and tear the broken metal structure apart piece by hurtling piece.
Within the shed's confines, despair was a desperate creation, Aerith and Leon hanging from the door frame as Cloud held the skewed, still-struggling door open behind them in the leaking building, their voices piercing the night one by one.
"Sora – where are you?" Tears ran tracks down Aerith's pale face, a bruise and a lump rising on her cheek, but otherwise unhurt.
At her side, Leon inhaled deeply, his bellow ringing through the hills. "Sora!"
Tree branches hung through the tin roof, puddles forming steadily around their feet. The wind whipped at their exposed bodies, hair stinging faces and eyes as it obeyed the weather's will.
They yelled until their throats were raw, voices cracking, but the boy was lost, wandering peaks and valleys unseen and unknown, their cries never reaching him.
The bindings were chafing at Riku's slender wrists, but if he hadn't strapped them tight enough, Maleficent would have taken it upon herself to do it, which would have meant fractured wrists more assuredly than not. Better to pull them so tight with his teeth that barely enough blood could pass through his veins than to have to listen to that chilling crack again.
The ground had become more solid, his staggering steps able to take on a regular stride along its surface, listening to the aged creak of the carriage's two large wheels. Of course, even with a steady pace, Maleficent took it upon herself to whip his bare back on occasion, the trip being long and otherwise boring to her. She sat above him, cold-eyed and wicked, enjoying the sight of the blood rising slowly to artfully placed stripes along his pale flesh.
The boy's shoulders were hunched, head bent low, eyes darting across the path before them, watching out for hindrances, struggling to avoid inciting her wrath. When she held that whip, when he was her dog like this, she was merciless. She would just as soon see the skin flayed entirely off him if he made any mistakes. His job was just to carry her down as smoothly as possible, then return her before dawn. As long as he achieved this much, her interest in him would be short-lived. She would distract herself with others, and Riku… he'd continue his damned existence quietly. Whether he still had all his blood or not; she would find her way down to the town and wreak her havoc.
His breaths panted out one by one, heartbeat, slow as it was, seeming to resound within his skull. He felt her clutch around his heart with its every pump, her taloned fingers with their eternal, unseen grip, squeezing tight for every moment of darkness that existed. It was all he could do to obey her. Her grip… never slackened.
Puddles littered the earth, the rain light but constant. It ran down his face, shoulders, trailing his back, taking rose-tinted water soaking into the back of his pants and down his legs. The cold was a relief from the perpetual heat that the whipping caused; a balm to the harsh sting. Riku further swallowed his sense of self, head dipping lower at the familiar snap above his head, burning pain striking in its wake. His fingers tightened around the wooden struts that should have been slung through the stirrups of a work-horse in ages past, but never again. He was the beast, these days.
Their descent continued, until somewhere between the sound of his footsteps and hopelessness coursing his system in place of oxygen, a low, semi-purring caught his attention. It was so unexpectedly unfamiliar that his head came jerking halfway up, hair bouncing, heavy with moisture, eyes widening at the sight of what stood ahead of them on the mountain path.
Riku faltered, stopped instinctively, hearing the hiss of the whip moments too late to yank his head out of the way. It slashed the side of his face, his ear, made him release his grip on the carriage reflexively. The sudden weight dragging at the straps at his wrists took him down to his knees, struggling every inch of the way as Maleficent renewed her whipping, snarling, "Foolish boy! What is the meaning of this? Get up! Get up at once!"
Hot blood trickled along the shell of his ear, feet struggling for a purchase, hands snatching once again at the struts, desperately, grunting, "Ah! Ah! Ah!" Again and again she slashed at him until he was back up, the carriage and Maleficent's seat on it once again steady. He was breathing hard, near to crying out his pain, spirit shivering once again on the edge of broken, when a low, shivering call echoed through the rain.
The witch ceased her punishment, finally noticing what it was that had stalled them in the first place. Her green eyes widened briefly, before narrowing in displeasure. "Well, well." Blocking the path stood an oversized bird, flightless wings folded at its sides, golden feathers dampened by the weather, its limpid gaze half-fixed upon the carriage in gentle curiosity. "A chocobo." The whip snapped again, Riku hissing in through clamped teeth, flinching his face to one side as the cruel tip came close. Disdainfully, she remarked, "This is the reason for your delay? Idiot child. There's no need to stop for creatures like this, no matter how rare they may be. Just run it down. It will either leap off the cliff and fall, or learn to fly."
Riku hesitated only minutely; she would beat him severely if he stayed in place for any longer than this. On her command, he hitched the carriage up a little further, steeled himself with a breath, and got the wheels turning again. Slow at first, but with gaining downhill velocity, Riku made for the bird. The breath stayed trapped within his lungs, lips pressed thinly together, silently urging it out of the way. God damn it, the stupid creature stayed in place, beautiful but dim, watching with interest as he barrelled closer.
At the last second, apparently sensing damage impending, the chocobo finally showed signs of alarm, a startled cry escaping its parted beak. It hopped nimbly off the path too narrow for both bird and carriage together, and landed easily on a jutting plateau several feet below.
Riku, however, was now completely out of control; the weight of the carriage bore him forward even as his heels scrabbled for traction, and, unseen before because of the bird, he slammed straight into a low shelf of stone, over into briar patch. In his efforts to stop, he twisted, the carriage flipping in an instant, the ancient strap around his right wrist snapping sharply, the left remaining and instead snapping his wrist.
There was an almighty crash as the carriage splintered against exposed stone, a blur of motion, then stillness.
Sora had been wandering for hours. The stream had vanished back into the mountain, taking all sense of direction with it. Short of leaping in and letting it bear him along, his only available option was to continue on and try to find where it came back out. With the bushes that littered the mountainside shushing and whispering with the relentless brush of the wind, he had climbed over boulders, crawled under natural shelves, picked his way through sharp stones, one foot flat, the other lifted onto its bare ball like a dancer.
The longer he wandered, the tighter his head became, like a slowly tightening vice, a twist of the bar for every half-hour. The fog didn't return, but the pain was its own smokescreen over his thoughts, clouding his mind as he struggled through the harsh surrounds. The rain had resumed, had increased the universal dripping, until it was almost all that the boy could hear, not even his footsteps audible over the constant, sharp noises. His hands were like blocks of ice, even as his head throbbed with building heat, broken fingernails and stabbed palms going unnoticed as he clawed his way up a steep mound of rocks.
Sweat mingling with the trickles of water that sailed slickly down the planes of his face, sliding saltily past open lips and onto his tongue, Sora hauled himself upward, breathing hard, burning up and headachy. His grasp met with the slender trunks of bushes, and using the stubborn outcropping he dragged himself up another four feet to a short, rocky ledge swarming with prickles.
He got scratched all over, but felt it only distantly; it was all just part of the journey. Sucking coppery slices and grazes could come when he was home safe again, able to feel the pain. Sora pulled himself directly into the brambles, heading ever upward, teeth gritted, a frown of concentration in place. He felt the bushes snag at his clothing, sharp points hooking into him wherever they touched, but the promise of solid ground wasn't far off. He could see where the snarl of branches levelled off up above, just a short climb away.
To his pleasant surprise, as he lifted himself, covered in countless little cuts and smears of mud, he saw that, in this sturdier location, the plants had grown much higher than those that clung to the side of the rock face. Nothing he could happily meander through on a Sunday afternoon stroll, but he discovered that lowering himself to his elbows and knees meant he could actually crawl under the worst of the thorns. The ground was even quite soft here, sort of mossy where water and less direct light had got through. Granted, if he'd needed to stretch out any time soon, he'd have ended up lacerated to within an inch of his life – but Sora could deal with slithering along like this for a while.
As it was, luck even seemed to finally be on his side; the briars thinned out after only minutes, the earth growing steadily harder under his shins. Larger and larger gaps were opening up overhead, until he was able to lift cautiously up into a crouch, heading for what was unmistakeably the exit up ahead, an almost bright flash of pale stone visible when compared to the darkness of the tightness within the thorns.
The bushes shook and rustled, and of course dripped, as he made through the last few feet, squeezing determinedly past the clutching snares and back into the fresh, open air and light drizzle.
As he broke out into the open, he hesitated, startled to see that the place he'd emerged at looked… kind of like a road. It swept around the curve of the mountain, bumpy but clear, continuing at a slight downward slant. For a moment, Sora felt pleased with himself, gasping gratefully at the cold, head tilting back as he instinctively took a look at the night sky. It was still oppressively dark, in the black, light-swallowing way that had fallen across the world with the advent of the sour-sweet wind; nothing had changed. He inhaled the tainted air deeply, tasting it all over again, accustomed to it but far from desensitised, yet needing to breathe hard. It didn't make for a happy Sora, but nothing about tonight was really making an effort to please him.
But then… as he let loose one of those deep breaths, exhaling it shakily, he heard it echoed in an inhale, definitely not his own, definitely nearby, and rattling. Rattling in the way that breaths rattle when there's moisture at the back of the throat, an excess of saliva. Except that it also sounded… thin. Thin, rattling with moisture – it sounded unhealthy. It sounded – faint.
Sora's gaze lowered back down, sweeping the immediate area, probing the darkness. He breathed out again, and again heard the answering inhale, like there was someone else in the area taking his oxygen for him. It took several long heartbeats for him to spot this phantom stealer of air, and when eventually his eyes did come to rest on the twisted, silver-haired form mere feet away, he had to wonder at the fact that he hadn't noticed right away. Distracted by the new freedom of being under the sky on flat ground again, he hadn't seen the nearby, hulking wreckage of something be-wheeled, even though it was alien against the landscape, and the pathetic creature with his arm strapped to one long wooden pole, hand hanging loosely from within its grip.
When the next inhale came, it sounded only from the poor creature twisted around on the stone with his head craned back along the downward curve, long hair spilling toward the dirt. Sora's own breaths were frozen in his lungs, wonder and horror slowly building, fighting for space in the cavern of his chest. He was locked in place, lips slowly parting, blue eyes wider and wider, heart thundering suddenly fast, hard enough to be felt knocking angrily against his sternum, throbbing between his ribs, up into his throat, all the way down to his fingertips.
Then came a tiny gasp, sharp in the silence, and Sora was in motion. He scrambled across the ground on all fours, ignorant to all but the still-living male draped so brokenly across the rocks, leaving handprints of mud smeared across the clean stone where he passed. He scraped to a halt just inches away from the injured boy, eyebrows knitting together in fear. "Hey! Are you all right? Can you answer me?" His hands hovered above the slack face, too afraid to touch, realising with a sinking sensation that, had it not been for the strained breathing of the stranger, he would have thought he was dead without question. He looked over at the crashed remains of what looked to be a carriage, wondering dimly how someone could ever end up here like this.
Gently, he swallowed his fear, lowered shaking fingers to the cold, pale surface of the stranger's skin, touching first his cheeks, then his forehead, pressing a palm against it to feel for – fever? The ice of death? Well, he was definitely cold enough for the latter. The guy was… bare-chested in the rain. In the middle of nowhere. This was crazy, without a doubt. There was something weird going on, but there was no way Sora was walking away when someone needed help. What exactly could he even do, though?Other than – try to get him somewhere safe? Find him a shirt, at least. There was no question of leaving him and going for help; by the time Sora returned, if he could ever find the place again, the boy would have died of hypothermia.
Well, if he was going to get this guy back down to town, he'd have to do something about that strap around his wrist, first. Man, why was he tied to that thing? What the hell had happened here? His numb fingers moved to inspect the binding, giving a few fruitless tugs before realising unhappily that it was too tight around both the bar and the boy for him to be able to just untie. Huffing through his nose, Sora searched swiftly for a sharp rock, grabbed up the closest sizeable one and turned back to the boy.
He was being watched.
With a start, Sora blinked at the vivid eyes that stared at him upside-down, a dazed look clouding their depths. A long beat of silence passed, as they gazed at one another, the stranger oddly calm. "I…" Worried, Sora bent down to eye level, twisting his head a little to try to bring them to a similar angle. "My name is Sora. I'm going to help you out of this, okay?" He let a long moment go by, to see if the silver-haired boy was going to respond, then straightened again, tightened his hands around the rock, lifting it over the point where the strap had been buckled to the wood.
God, it was like he was some kind of prisoner, but Sora hadn't ever heard of prisoners up here in the mountains; especially not any that looked barely older than he was. This was… some kind of cruelty he'd never encountered before.
Sucking in, steeling himself, the brunet gathered the strength in his arms and prepared to stab down, eyes narrowed on the stretched, tight leather. Just before he committed to the swing, he was stopped, startled, by a soft voice asking, "Are you here to take me away?"
Sora paused with his arms up above his head, gaze glued to the eyes of the stranger, that glazed look slightly faded. Awareness glittered in him, aquamarine irises focused with surprising clarity on the boy.
"Is she letting me die?"
Sora blinked, brows jerking up, before drawing in to knit together. Cautiously, he lowered the rock, answering, "…I don't…"
The boy studied him closely from his awkward position, the fingers of the hand trapped inside the strap twitching slightly, drawing Sora's anxious attention. "…You look like you're here to take me away. Like… to Heaven. There's no other reason why you'd be out here. Nobody is out here tonight."
Wiping a muddy hand over his wet face, digging the fingers through his dark spikes, Sora shrugged helplessly. "You are," he offered. "Why not me, too?"
There was a brief pause. They resumed staring at each other, before, abruptly enough to make Sora flinch, the stranger's other hand came darting out, snatching hold of Sora's ear and jerking him close. "Ow!" the brunet squeaked, eyes watering at the unexpected pain.
With a gasp, the boy let him go, wild distress infusing his expression. "You!" he hissed, as Sora fell back, nursing his throbbing ear. Something demented flickered in the silver-haired male's gaze, desperate. "You're human! Get out of here!" Every heated, whispered word slammed into the brunet with fierce force. "Get the fuck out!"
"It's okay," Sora panted, bewildered. "I can help–"
"I don't need you!" The stranger was panting agitatedly, eyes enormous, struggling to get upright, away from Sora. The fingers of his free hand clawed at the stone, but when the other hand attempted to join the attempt, he was sharply immobilised by pain, flopping back hard.
Upset, Sora reasoned, "You're hurt. Please, I'm not going to do anything to you, I just –"
Again, he was seized, yanked close to the upside-down face, the stranger snarling frantically, "It's not me you need to worry about!"
The boy froze, hand clutching convulsively around Sora's collar, features seizing in despair. The brunet stilled his efforts to free himself, startled by the second voice. "There's someone else?" The question was posed breathlessly to the silver-haired boy, but the stranger's eyes had slid shut, expression wretched, no response forthcoming. His fingers loosened gradually, Sora cautiously able to draw back out of his grasp, the collar of his t-shirt wrinkled. The boy's knuckles dropped down to the stone, limp, and his eyes, when Sora glanced down, remained closed.
His only warning was a slight prickle, an uncertain tingle, somewhere between the regions of his stomach and chest. He felt as much as saw the darkness rise and manifest, and though he knew it was just a person in the shadows… the night seemed to marshal around her. She drew herself tall, glaring down from atop the overturned carriage, looming over them.
"…Riku. Who is this child?"
Words dried and crumbled in Sora's throat, her eyes glowing a poisonous green that made the night seem to thicken and grow denser… she was drawing him deeper into it, making the edges of the world turn dark, an ice creeping through his chest, pulling everything inward…
"…Tried to warn you," the silver-haired boy murmured exhaustedly, drawing Sora's gaze abruptly down to his resigned expression.
"It's a child from the town," the woman realised slowly, eyes narrowing as she inspected the bedraggled creature leaning over the boy strapped to the cart. She sounded almost curious. Her voice held little of the power that her eyes possessed, but still, Sora shuddered to hear it, not risking a second glance upward. He kept his eyes locked on the injured boy, a building, awe-stricken certainty rising within him.
"Who are you, boy? Give me your name."
Sora swallowed hard, searching the silver-haired male's face for signs or warnings, but none were forthcoming. His expression had deadened from the instant she had spoken. "…Sora, ma'am," he all but whispered, sweating through the chill. Then, struggling with each word, he asked, "And are you… really Maleficent? Are you – her?"
The silver-haired boy's eyes flashed open, fear constricting his pupils into pinpricks.
Maleficent had gone suddenly quiet. Riku's heart was beating faster than he could remember was even possible, mouth dry, feeling her grip around his heart tighten with the pulse of anger that answered the idiot kid's words.
Why was he still sitting there? His face was so close, Riku able to make out individual eyelashes, the droplets trickling down the sides of his face from the heavy, dark spikes of hair. He couldn't even imagine how a boy from the town had managed to find his way this far in the dark, on a night like this no less… Didn't he have anyone that loved him? Was there no one to keep this fool indoors, away from her viciousness?
He would be a lamb to the slaughter; the very first of her quota, and Riku could see by the way her eyes flared that the boy's last moments would be purely of terror.
"Am I Maleficent?" Her voice was a sibilant hiss, almost stunned by the enormity of his ignorance. Her eyes burned through the night, piercing the brunet, though the kid had at least had the good sense to avert his face… but Riku could practically smell the fear. It rolled off his skin, thick and strong. Maleficent would be able to taste it.
"You come up here onto my mountain and dare to ask if I am Maleficent?" Her upper lip curled, the very tip of her tongue appearing to be bitten between sharp teeth. "Are you the fool of your village, boy?"
The kid was panting hard, head hanging down, evidently realising his mistake… maybe all his mistakes. Was he reliving the night, until this point? Was he wishing he'd been a little less fucking compassionate, and left the broken-looking Riku to die on the rocks, instead of scuttling out into her sights?
…Shit. Riku couldn't let this happen. Not to this kid.
He struggled up suddenly, startling the boy into jerking back to avoid their heads knocking. There was agony in his wrist, but broken bones had been felt before, and would be felt again. He shuddered out a gasp, fought to stand in a hunched fashion, grunting, "Maleficent –"
He didn't really know what had made him bother; there was nothing he could do. She unfurled the whip, hidden prior to now by the voluminous material of her robe, and slashed at his exposed face with the crop. The crack of contact echoed, Riku's vision blurring sharply, a cry from behind instilling the slightest gratitude in his waning soul; the boy was horrified for him. Riku hung for a moment, then slammed back to the ground on his knees, broken wrist twisting around with the tight strap, a whimper escaping his lips.
"I'm sorry," the brunet quickly said, as she promptly ignored the fact that her slave had ever stirred and returned her pinioning attention to him. He was bent low to the earth, her ice-cold presence becoming more and more oppressive to be near. "I'm sorry, I won't ask again."
For the first time, Maleficent smiled, and Riku felt the name Sora carve itself onto the death warrant in his mind, one more life that he himself had led her to snuff out.
Damned, damned, damned.
"Of course not," she silkily agreed, then threw her arms wide, the crawling hem of her robes flinging outward, the whip transforming into her long staff with a burst of fiery green. A flurry of black bats erupted from within the robes' folds, exploding towards Sora, screeching and shrieking, fangs and talons slashing at the air. Riku heard him scream as he was engulfed; saw the flash of skin as he instinctively swung his arms at the avengers. Only seconds passed before the black mass of flapping rodents shifted, the boy trying to run, never realising that this was precisely what was meant to happen, exactly what Maleficent had anticipated, down to the very last petrified flail.
Sora never stood a chance. As Riku groaned deep in his chest, the boy made straight for the cliff's edge, straight for where the chocobo had earlier vanished, and with a final, high scream, disappeared from sight.
Riku could hear the slam of rocks as his body tumbled down, the miniature avalanche of sand and stone that he broke off pouring in his wake, until, before long, things had gone more or less quiet again. The occasional pebble insisted on clattering after the rest as an afterthought, but otherwise, there was nothing.
The boy with the compassion was gone.
Maleficent lowered her arms smugly, tapping the end of her staff against the wooden side of the overturned carriage, hands folding neatly together around its black length. "Am I Maleficent," she snorted. Then, "You stupid boy. Look at the damage done to the carriage, from chasing that ugly bird. Get it up, at once. We've lost enough time here."
Riku sat for a moment longer, staring at where the bats had vanished into thin air, sharp illusions that had barely existed in the first place. His hair hung long and cold down his chest and back, eyes sightless, heart empty. He was so hollow that even her frozen grasp could almost have been warming.
This was what happened to you, when you were damned. This was life.
For a long, drifting while, Sora's existence comprised of pain, and pain alone. He was arms, and legs, and a spine, and a stomach; he was his head, and his face, and his hands. He was his shoulders, and they in turn were pain, and pain in turn was the warm trickle of blood. All were interconnected, each leading to the other, and functions like breath and heartbeat were the hammers driving nails all over and under and inside his flesh.
It took some time before anything else invaded the tight universe of Sora's body parts. Eventually, it was the rain that coaxed him cautiously back to consciousness; the cold, persistent drops against his face and throat encouraged his eyes to open, and for several minutes he just stared skyward and let the water fill him.
Awareness of himself dawned gradually, complete with every physical woe under the sun. He thought about moving, before letting loose an agonised grunt that bubbled from his throat at the mere suggestion. Right now… lying perfectly still and waiting for day could be his only possible course of action, surely. Even with the ground uncomfortable beneath him, a bed of mud and water surrounding him, a nest of scrubby young trees hanging onto him, anything was better than ever having to move again.
With this realisation, Sora let his rain-moistened eyes slide shut again, more than ready to fade back into whatever passed for darkness in this hellish place. Darkness – like what had echoed in the tortured gaze of the silver-haired boy. Riku. Memory flashed in the form of irises the colour of ocean, a tired voice saying, "I warned you."
Despair stabbing deep, Sora's eyes popped back open, but whose emotion was this? His, or the other boy's? He was Maleficent's prisoner – Maleficent, who even at this very moment would be continuing her way down the mountain, heading for Radiant Garden and all its huddled residents – with Aerith, Cloud and Leon directly in her path, armed with flashlights and a single, dying gas lamp.
Sora's heart thumped hard once, then erupted into a flutter of panic. He wrenched himself upward, feeling a burst of terror more pure even than that he had managed to experience directly at Maleficent's hands, then promptly keeled straight over again, groaning loudly at the spike of pain that ripped through him. She was going to get Aerith, Cloud and Leon. There was no way she wouldn't, no way she'd be able to resist. They were just sitting there, utterly defenceless, and she was able to call bats out of nowhere, to bite and scratch and tear and…
Come to think of it, out of all of Sora's various injuries, a network of rabies-inducing lacerations didn't seem to be part of the list. Where he bled, he bled due to cuts from stones, grazes caused by the earth dragging sharply across his flesh… but actual bites weren't part of the medley. Uncertainly, the boy held out one pale arm, stretched across the mud, and inspected it closely.
There was… nothing.
He could specifically recall the sensation of the little monsters ripping at his forearms as he'd tried to smack them away, but now that they were gone, so too was their damage. So did this mean that – the cuts had never been there to begin with?
As Sora lay there, slowly getting accustomed to the feel of a conscious, beaten body, his mind churned with everything he had ever known about the malevolent character of Maleficent. An evil witch, banished to the very tip of the mountain by three good fairies after she had destroyed the old royal family; doomed to remain there, powers restricted, trapped in darkness, allowed to roam only when the sour-sweet wind would blow: The Dark Fairy; The Queen of Nightmares. If you didn't come in before sunset on a windy day, your mother warned that the witch would snatch you away and fill your heart with terror.
Over a century and a half had passed since the supposed era in which the legend had taken place; yet, even now, the superstitions were as strong as ever. And with good reason – Maleficent was looking pretty spry for a woman rumoured to be around two hundred years old. And if that part of the tales was true – then what about the nightmares part? The terror part? The part that said that, when she descended the mountain, those she killed died with expressions of pure horror upon their faces, but no actual sign of injury?
Sora had come in contact with her, and she had unleashed a storm of vicious, biting bats onto him. He'd fallen because of it… but, looking up now, he could still vaguely make out the tangle of briars. He had dropped from the edge, but been dragged to an abrupt stop among the scrub. She had tried to kill him, but failed… and there wasn't a mark on him that hadn't been caused by the mountain itself. That didn't make her any less powerful, any less capable of killing his friends as they huddled in the tool shed; but maybe… just maybe…
Sora's eyes lowered to the mud, a worm of dismay crawling inside him as he realised that he wasn't just going to lie here until daylight, he couldn't wait for someone to come find him… because if he tried that, he'd probably have fewer people to go back to, anyway. He – he couldn't stay still while that witch was making straight for the town. He only had… a vague theory, the slightest idea, but…
Well. He supposed it would just have to be enough.
Sora pushed up onto his elbows with the utmost caution, determination slowly swelling, but a healthy respect for his aches and pains and possible broken bones superseding it. There'd be no rushing off if it turned out he had a lot more than bruises and cuts to worry about. Feeling impatience threatening to build, he nevertheless took his time in stretching out each limb, experimenting all the way down to his last knuckles, waiting for a blinding burst that never came. He was bad, all right – but not so bad that he couldn't continue. Many of the bruises were deep, and dark, and moving was a stiff, laboured effort… but as long as he was able to continue, all of that was secondary.
With a shaky breath, he gripped a handful of the young trees holding him, hearing his trembling transferred into their dry, brittle leaves. He felt weak, and sore, but more than that, he was afraid that he'd be too late, and that people he loved would be dead if he didn't do something. He was alone, and he was defenceless – but as long as his heart kept beating, he would do whatever possible to protect them. There was no one else that could.
As he pulled himself upright, he felt the tug and stretch of thinly dried blood. The downwards trip had opened up some new cuts, a couple of them deeper than shallow, but all in all, he was looking pretty okay. Considering he'd just tumbled down a portion of the mountain, he figured he was doing very okay. Supporting himself on the crumbling brown earthen wall, Sora dragged himself to his feet, still gazing upward, through the rain, at where he had come from.
Nobody was up there. His hands creeping further up the wall, Sora listened, unsteady. He couldn't hear anything but the howl of the wind, the hiss of the rain, the shushing of the plants and bushes… Maleficent's presence was gone from his mind, and from his heart. He was shivering with the cold, feeling somehow hollow after having felt her inside of him, the memory of it – like he'd been touched by uncleanliness, and couldn't have come quite entirely clean no matter how he tried. Features solemn, blue eyes blinking up at the distant tangle of briars, he wondered what it was like for the silver-haired boy with her. He hadn't had that same effect on Sora – nothing like it. He'd seemed so alone out here, and so petrified when he'd realised that Sora wasn't… some angel come to take him away. God. That guy… he'd asked Sora if she'd finally allowed him to die.
…Exactly how long had he been her prisoner? And what did she make him do? If only a few moments looking at her had left Sora so tainted – what kind of damage would have been done to him after who only knew how long?
Lightly biting his lower lip with two sharp canines, the brunet started glancing around, searching for a way down from this ledge. There was no question about him getting back up to where he'd been – he couldn't face the thought of it, the pain of it. And besides… that would be – too slow for what he had in mind.
Instead… he crept towards the edge on screaming feet, experiencing a sick, lurching jolt as he peered down. It was no sheer cliff, which was what had saved him on the way down – but it wasn't going to be a pleasant stroll, either. He had to get down, and no convenient steps were bursting to life, carved out of the mountain itself. He was going to have to hoof it.
"Shit." His opinion was pretty definite. "Shit, shit, shit." Lowering down onto his haunches, he edged towards the ledge's precipice, snatching hold of one of the stubborn trees growing sturdily through the rocky dirt, choking on a dry swallow, sending his gaze down the sharp, wet slope. Focus slipping past the immediate, he could see the twinkle far below of Radiant Garden, and felt a piercing homesickness more powerful than anything he'd known in his life. He was so close, in distance, only a couple of hours away, but – an entire planet away in terms of the gap between where he stood, with his intentions, versus the townsfolk huddled in their homes, lights burning brightly, fearfully. If only he'd managed to keep a hold on his flashlight, then he'd at least be going to battle with some kind of pretence at weaponry… but with things as they were…
Sucking a breath, ribs protesting at the sharp motion and making damn sure he knew about it, Sora held onto the tree for as long as he could, painstakingly lowering himself over onto the slope, away from solid ground. He had to force his lips away from his teeth, wanting badly to clamp down on them with the effort, but knowing he'd bleed more from his mouth than any other part of him ever had in his lifetime if he even thought about it. Small grunts and groans pressed their way out of his throat like coughs, pain spearing through each injury in turn as he stretched his body out. Hissing slowly, jaw clenched hard, eyes blurring up as his head gave an especially hard thud along what was now an old woe when put beside all the others, Sora eased himself down the extent of the tree an inch at a time, desperately clinging to its feeble support. Releasing it would be a crime, impossible, unthinkable… but it wasn't going to stretch down the entire mountain, was it? He slithered a little further, the last of the ledge scraping his shirt up, leaving scratches on his back, and then suddenly, there was no more tree to grasp. He was right at the tip, and gravity was pulling at him harder than expected – it hadn't seemed as steep as all this when he'd only been looking. He'd gone too far to pull himself back up; there was only one direction from here onwards.
"Shit," the boy grated one more time, sounding choked, and finally uncurled his fingers. He was instantly in motion, sliding down the incline faster than anticipated, fingers dragging up useless handfuls of earth, feet and hands struggling to find the slightest bit of traction as he hurtled down, trying desperately to not flip and finally do what Maleficent and all her imaginary bats hadn't managed. Slick mud sprayed up around him as his heels sliced through the watery dirt, a thin cry travelling in his wake, bleeding out through tightly gritted teeth, eyes filling as the icy air assaulted them. It was – only a little bit like sledding down the high hill outside of the Committee house during the snows, because back then, he'd actually had a sled.
Still, slamming to a stop at the bottom didn't change much between ice and mud; the extra distance made up for the lack of flying speed that the sled lent. Sora wrenched to a sudden halt, legs stuttering, jolting into solid ground, body tumbling onwards with momentum, rolling him almost entirely over the next descending edge. One arm hanging over the edge, face pressed into the earth, seeing stars, Sora lay motionless for a minute, regaining his breath after the shockingly swift journey. Then, suddenly feeling the chasm gaping beneath him, body tugging to the right as the precipice began crumbling, he gasped, the fingers of his left hand and toes of his shoe-less foot dug into the earth, one heaving motion rolling him back away onto sturdier ground.
He panted for a while, before his mind finally caught up with him, having probably picked its way down with a greater sense of self-preservation. Pushing up to his knees, he winced, taking stock of the newest aches and pains, a little dizzy, the pressure in his head returning slowly as the trauma agitated the fleshy knot under his hair. But he'd made it down to this point, and he'd even made it alive – he was counting it a triumph.
Staggering to his feet, Sora's hands moved automatically to brush off some of the encrusting filth, without effect. He was absolutely dripping with mud. Sniffing, nose running with the cold and maybe just a little bit of blood, he gave up and looked around. Who would have thought there'd be a disused road this far up the mountain? He was standing on a lower tier of the unsteady pathway that he'd found up where Maleficent and the crashed carriage had been. He hadn't had long to look at it, but it had definitely been a trail, and they had obviously been using it for the downward journey – prior, that is, to whatever had happened to end up with the silver-haired guy slung over a rock and the carriage overturned. He'd spent all that time roughing it through the wild scrub and boulders and rocks, never realising that there was a clear road heading downward from the top. The people of Radiant Garden never ventured up high enough to discover it for themselves. As much as it was a part of their town, there had never been any pressing need to ascend the omniscient monolith that towered above them, nothing of value to be taken from it, and no adventure in climbing it.
But now that Sora was here, now that he knew it existed, this meant he also knew Maleficent's route. There was no other clear way down the mountain, not with the carriage as well… and, now that Sora thought about it…
He had been worried that he might have missed her, that in the time he'd been fading in and out of consciousness further up, Maleficent would have driven by. But… when everything was connected to make sense…
The silver-haired boy. Riku. He had been tied to the carriage – not as a prisoner, but as its horse. She'd had a whip. He'd been strapped to the poles, to the carriage. He was her horse, her dog, her slave.
…No wonder he'd wanted to die.
Well, then. It was almost certain that they hadn't passed him by, in that case. The boy, Riku, he'd been injured, right? And he was pulling the great contraption entirely on his own, on foot. Their progress would be slow, then. Slower, at least, than Sora's one-way trip down the mountain's steep side. Hopefully, he hadn't been knocked out for too long, hopefully he would catch them here, hopefully…
Oh, what the hell was he thinking? Hopefully, he would be able to intercept Maleficent.
The rational side of his mind was up in arms at ever having to have the thought enter his skull. The absurdity of this ridiculous story-come-to-life bristled, but even as that logic attempted to rise up and persuade him that it had all been a dream, all some illusion created by head injuries and hypothermia… he heard a sound approaching. A steady creaking, loud, growing nearer, punctuated by a rhythmic thud every several moments. Even as he turned to face it, a spark of curiosity coming to life, he knew in his heart that it was her. He felt the sour-sweet wind blow through his chest, and knew.
The carriage was limping, an axle fractured from its accident, making the right wheel rise up and thump down every few cycles. Sora could see, from his utterly vulnerable position in the middle of the road, the huddled form of the boy dragging it resolutely along, could see the heavy droop of his head. Of Maleficent there was no sign; she must have been on the inside of the small, two-person transportation.
First instinct: run. Sora's heart erupted, thumping in his temples, through every bruise in existence, screaming, screaming at him to run for cover, to dodge back to the edge of the road and throw himself over, to claw his way back up to where he had been left for dead. He went so far as to twist in place, feet apart, arms coming up in readiness for a short dash out of harm's way… but then he forcefully reminded himself of the others down the mountain, hesitation making him stumble a little, taking an uncertain step forward, jerky, halting.
It was at that moment that Riku spotted him.
The regular complaint of the wheels ground to an abrupt stop, taking Sora's gaze ripping over to the side, wide with fear, the look matched almost perfectly by the silver-haired boy. He was about fifteen feet away, standing between the rigid wooden poles supporting the carriage, hands wrapped around them, one only loosely, the other with knuckles looking like they'd burst through the skin. His face was a picture of stunned shock, mouth agape as he stared, a glint of teeth visible.
Sora's eyes were stuck on him, body stiff, dizzy with dread. Then, steeling himself, swallowing thickly, he turned to face the other male straight on, and began to walk towards him. Alarmed, silver hair sliding across his bare chest, Riku began shaking his head. He took an instinctive step back, making the carriage jostle and creak, and not a moment later, Maleficent's voice burst thinly into being, "Riku! What is the delay?"
"Stay where you are! Don't move!" His voice tore from his throat anxiously, head snapping to the side, desperately trying to prevent her coming out.
There was a slight pause, the only sound Sora's feet squelching across the mud, growing ever nearer, before the door suddenly slammed open, startling him into stopping, making the silver-haired boy jump sharply, Maleficent swinging out, clutching the roof with one hand, roaring, "You dare try and command me, idiot child?!"
Her whip was in hand, preparing to unfurl and unleash, towering height looming up above both the boys, when Sora ran forward, holding out his hands, and shouted, panicked, "Maleficent!"
She stopped with all the suddenness of a gunshot, arm caught as if by some invisible grasp. Her green eyes widened on Sora, expression twisting into one of outrage, before settling into seething contempt. "Oh. It's you, is it? I should have known. Your type never knows when death is good enough." Her gaze narrowed on him. Sora froze, ready to snap his eyes down towards the ground if she started to suck him in again… but somehow, the effect was less this time. He still felt it, still felt that cold fist inside his chest, still saw the edges of the world dim a little… but she wasn't consuming him. She merely scowled, displeased at his dogged continuation in existing, a short silence developing.
"So, you survived." Her words were abrupt, flat. "A shame. Never mind, though; by the time you reach your precious town…" Her lips curved into a cruel smile. "I'll make sure that all the people inside your heart are long gone, little boy. There are more ways than one to destroy a heart, don't imagine I don't know that."
"I know!" The words burst out of Sora frantically; he forced himself to sound calmer, struggling to keep out the desperation which bit at his voice. He cleared his throat, repeated in slower, mellower tones, "I know that. That's because… you're the Queen of Nightmares, right?"
She arched a thin brow, the elbow of her whip arm settling momentarily on the open door. "…It's been one of my names. Why are you so curious about me, boy? More to the point…" She leaned forward, eyes glowing through the darkness, teeth bared. "Why aren't you more afraid?"
Sora trembled, fought it down, and actually managed to smile. It was a crooked, awkward creation, but nevertheless, it made Maleficent blink. "It's because… I like to be scared." His voice cracked only a little as he said it. "I like being afraid. I like… nightmares. And I thought – I was wondering, if you would, if you'd… if you'd scare me some more. Please."
The woman straightened, features blank with surprise, and more than a little suspicion. Riku was plainly staring, expression slack with disbelief, looking at Sora as if he were utterly mad. Maleficent studied the brunet for a long moment, and once again, that feeling of being sucked in towards her bloomed. But this time… this time, he couldn't allow himself to pull away. If he wanted to succeed at this, he'd have to let her, have to be drawn into her, at least partially. He had to make her think that he was serious.
Sora felt trickles of sweat beading down the back of his neck, sliding through his hair and down his throat. Just looking at her was scaring him almost more than he could stand, but he held his ground, endured her hellish scrutiny, felt the most profound relief when her probing glare finally pulled away again.
Eventually, flatly, she said, "You must be mad. You foolish boy, get out of my way. I have a night to take charge of."
Swallowing, panicking as she unhooked her arm from the door and looked exactly as if she were about to climb back inside the carriage and continue, Sora cried, "No, I'm not, I swear, I just like it, I – I came all the way out here to see you, and…"
With all the speed at which she'd stopped, Maleficent threw herself back into motion, the whip coming down onto her slave's back without mercy, Sora flinching away. "Riku! Double the pace, I want to get down there now." She sent Sora a knife-thin smile, sliding back into the carriage as the silver-haired boy leaned forward, pulling hard at the carriage, grunting in agony. "Perhaps we'll meet again."
"No, wait!" Sora held up his hands as Riku approached at a heavy jog, his head down, eyes blocked by the thick, wet hair across his face. "Maleficent!" He was forced aside, the silver-haired male not daring to slow, Sora jumping to the wall's edge of the road, hands tightly clenched into fists. Riku shot him a weary, distrustful look as he passed, a brief, bright flash of green – so very different to Maleficent – and then had forged past. Sora turned to watch him go, readying another bellow at the carriage… only to have it dry between his lips, mind going blank as he caught sight of the tormented male's back.
Blood stained the back of Riku's jeans, down the backs of his thighs, red and pink mixing with rain, sliding endlessly from countless ugly slashes deforming his back. He had been flayed open, torn apart by the whip in Maleficent's hand. Whatever words Sora had been planning were gone now. All he could see, all he could imagine, all he knew in that moment, was the incredible, terrible destruction of a beautiful-looking boy at the hands of that witch.
Chest tight, fists at his sides, Sora breathed short puffs of steam in the damp darkness. She was just… she was wicked. He didn't know if evil applied, didn't know if it was the word that she evoked from his thoughts, but – but wicked fit. There was something twisted and dark living on this mountain, and right at the present moment, it was making its way down to torture the town below, to leave the inhabitants with more fear, more grief, just like she had been for so many decades. Sora hadn't believed it, but there was nothing else to believe anymore. He knew this was real, as sick and frightening as that was, and knew that only suffering would come from her.
Sora's hesitation was brief; he was running after the descending carriage even before the decision was consciously made, wheezing, eyes wide, stumbling every few steps but more certain than ever that he – he had to do something. He couldn't just watch this continue. Too many lives were being devoured by this witch!
"Hey!" The voice tore from him hoarsely, almost unrecognisable as his own. He was ultimately faster than Riku's loping gait, but the weight of the carriage was pressing the other male forward faster and faster, and Sora's reserves were already more than overtaxed, pulling on adrenaline alone. "Hey!" He scooped up a rock, a handful of mud and stones, and hurled them at the back of the diminishing vehicle.
Without stopping to watch for the impact, hearing the dull thunk as the biggest one hit, he was already casting about for more, scraping up handfuls of wet, dirty debris. Gathering the ammunition in his shirt, the fabric growing saturated and heavy, he continued after the witch, tossing successive volleys. His mind was screamingat him again, but it wasn't until too late that he finally ceased, the halting carriage up ahead bringing him abruptly to stricken senses.
He stopped sharply, staring down at the stationary vehicle, nothing happening for a long minute. Then, slowly, the small door re-opened. One bone-white, clawed hand slid gracefully out, gripping the top of the wood tightly, Maleficent's long body following with steady anger. She lowered herself to the ground, the night once again seeming to flow around her, even from a distance. Sora's hands dropped gradually, the mess in his shirt splattering back to earth. He was caught by the glow of her eyes.
She was waiting.
Blinking rapidly, chin lifting as he struggled to get enough oxygen into constricting lungs, Sora remained, for a second, rooted to the spot. But then, almost against his will – most certainly against all sense of survival or sanity – the boy took his first step forward, followed by a second. His legs shook, knees wobbling, head suddenly light as he took a third step and a fourth. The cold mud under his left foot felt icier than before, the closer that he got to her. The breeze blew harder, stank of more vile odours, and he knew, he knew she was angry. He knew that he was smelling her frigid rage. Nevertheless, he walked towards her; he descended the hill to meet her, slowing and stopping mere feet from the back of the carriage.
Riku was craning around, as far as the strap still tight around his wrist would let him, pain pulling at his features but concern and bewilderment coming through stronger, a silent, stunned question in his gaze, overlaid by dread so thick that Sora could practically see his own fate written out in the boy's eyes.
Maleficent stared him down coldly, hands wrapped around her black whip. "Come closer, boy," she invited in hard tones. "You've got my attention. You wanted fear. So, then – come here."
Sora cleared his throat, the noise strangled and small, and did as bidden. Riku, fear pinching his face, called, "No! What are you doing? You survived once, don't let her get you again!"
"Hush, Riku." Maleficent wore a small smirk, narrow eyes fixed on the slowly approaching brunet. "Didn't you hear the boy, begging me to frighten him? Obviously, we have a connoisseur on our hands. Closer," she hissed, Sora jolting and hurrying the last few inches.
In less time than he had ever thought possible in the entire span of a lifetime, Sora found himself standing directly in front of Maleficent, Queen of Nightmares, whom in the light of day had seemed nothing more than myth, but in these dark, ice-laden moments was more real even than the pounding heart in his chest. He had to clench his teeth, bite nails into palms, as her poison-green gaze bore into his head and soul like a slowly pressing thorn.
The rain powdered down around them, the sliding rustle of Maleficent's robes audible even when she herself wasn't moving. Sora felt something slide around his ankle as they gazed at each other in silence, his glance drawn instinctively downwards, a choked cry swallowed down before it could reach the air, something blacker than even the night wrapping around his bare foot, caressing his flesh like the slow slither of a serpent. Blue eyes pressed briefly shut, before lifting back up, flashing back open, his refusal to leap back in horror the equivalent of a shout of defiance into her bloodless face.
Maleficent's thin lips drew back in a short sneer, a burst of green light half-blinding Sora as it burst into being, her whip transforming again into the long staff, orb radiating its nauseating glow, turning his stomach, sending a coloured wash across their surroundings. "Closer, Sora," she said, voice deceptively soft and silky, before stabbing the tip of the staff into the ground. Sora was unable to keep himself from jumping back as the earth almost directly beneath his feet rumbled and shook, grinding ominously. Where he had only seconds previously been standing, the mud shuddered and rose, water streaming back down as solid blocks of dirt and rock slammed up, each higher than the last, Maleficent's staff gleaming bright and sick.
The end result… was a set of steps leading up to the top of the carriage. Maleficent sent him a long look, then turned her back on him, and began a slow, elegant ascent, her face twisted to one side so that she could keep Sora within the corner of her eye the entire way up. The boy stared dumbly as she climbed higher, until a slight noise came, feet that couldn't be seen nevertheless able to be heard in that one moment as she stepped from the earthen stairs onto the vehicle's wooden top.
From this lofty height, Maleficent gazed down at Sora, anger no longer evident in her gaze, a calculating aspect to her instead, hidden behind flat malice. With darkness wrapping around her like a worn glove, she extended a clawed hand towards him, eyes calling to his heart, the cold grip around it making it suddenly difficult to breathe. "Well?" she asked. "Are you going to join me?"
Sora swallowed down the lump of fear that choked off his air. He twitched forward, struggling to keep his hesitation from showing through, and from the front of the carriage, Riku let out a low, despairing noise. "Don't," he pleaded quietly, blood tracing the scarred lines of his back. "Don't do this, she'll trap you, she'll kill you."
"Riku, be quiet." Maleficent's voice was no louder than it had been, but it cut through the air like a blade, making the silver-haired male flinch away from the sound. Despite her, he kept his eyes locked on Sora's, the begging element not abating for even a moment.
"Please. Don't make me watch you die."
But what Sora heard, echoing in the back of his mind, was… Please… don't let Aerith and the others die.
He held Riku's gaze for a long, hopeless moment, then stepped forward, to the base of the rocky, witch-made stairs, and lifted his right foot, laces heavy with mud, trailing after his sneaker like boneless arms.
"Idiot! What are you trying to prove?" Riku snarled, the carriage shuddering as he jerked, a cry of pain bursting out a second later as his left wrist tugged against its bindings.
"Riku," Maleficent snapped sharply. "Don't you dare let this carriage sway. Shut up; your opinion has never mattered, and never will."
A low, despairing noise, followed by, "…Yes, Maleficent." The saturated boy tightened his grip anew, turning heavily away, not looking at Sora again. The brunet continued his climb, brought his second foot and all his weight onto the first step. It felt solid; real. It didn't feel like any kind of illusion… but wasn't it supposed to be illusion that Maleficent dealt in? How could she – how could she make the very earth move to do her bidding? It was a worrying development. A very concerning revelation indeed. However, there was no turning back now, was there? He'd half expect to find the tip of her staff jutting out from between his ribs if he tried turning away from her now.
Gathering his strength, Sora braved the second step, had to lift his leg high to get to it, watching the ground get further away and trying not to tremble because of it. "That's right," the witch encouraged, sly, smiling. "Come on. Don't dally… Come closer, Sora." The use of that name, his name being formed by her mouth, her tongue and teeth and breath, was almost enough to elicit a full-body shudder from him, to the depths of his bones, but he staved it off, tightened the grit of his teeth until his entire jaw seemed to ache with the tension, and ascended another step, only one to go from here until he could shift sideways and join her.
Taking in a deep, chilling breath, Sora put out a hand to steady himself on the final step, felt the gritty dirt beneath his fingers, dug his nails in and heaved himself up, swaying in the air for a moment with nothing to support him but the unnatural plateau under his feet. He shivered as the wind blasted him, distracted by the thud of Maleficent's staff touching the carriage's top as she shifted to allow him on beside her. She then turned, observing as he wobbled for a moment, obviously disorientated by the height, with the mountain falling away on almost every side, the drop down to the next inhabitable stretch a daunting one; if he were to fall from this point, he would tumble ever so far…
The witch's smile stretched at the corners, and Sora steadied himself, before quickly hopping over the inch-wide divide between earth and wood. "There, now. That certainly wasn't difficult, was it?" She sounded almost kindly, and for a brief few seconds, Sora was just the slightest bit fooled – the forever-receptive part of his personality reacted to the warmth of what she said, his face lifting with an uncertain, automatic half-smile.
It died on his lips.
Maleficent had stepped from the carriage, was suspended in midair as easily and stably as he stood upon the roofing, her staff's orb pulsing slowly like a weak heart, Sora feeling a grab in his chest each time it flared, followed by a hollowness as it waned. Blackness stretched below her, around her, absorbed the night sky, what there was of it, and swathed her body… or, wait, was it really Maleficent being swallowed by the dark?
Wasn't it he himself?
He looked down at his body, lifted his hands and cried aloud at the fingers and threads and ropes of black, abyssal nothingness that entwined his flesh, wrapping around and around, spreading like disease, blooming and growing, consuming him. Horrified, filled with terror more pure than anything he'd ever felt, as if this was terror, terror in its tangible form crawling all over him, absorbing his limbs and throat, Sora writhed and thrashed at the air, at his forearms and knuckles, trying to tear away the vile substance – but it was like smoke. It wouldn't dissipate, wouldn't slow its progress, in fact seemed to move faster as his heart sped exponentially with every passing split-second of the attack. Shadows were devouring him, were splitting and multiplying like hydra, more and more of his flesh disappearing from view. One desperate, "No!" wrenched from his lungs, to which Maleficent answered with a low chuckle.
As the world and everything in it vanished from view to be filled with darkness, only those two green eyes burned with any form of radiance, filled with suppressed rage and vicious longing, decades of it, centuries' worth. Her voice reached to him through the gloom, sounding distant, as if she were sending her words to him through a long, vibrating tunnel.
She said, "You're underestimating me."
And then, even Maleficent was gone.