A/N: It was brought to my attention that it's kiiiiiiiiiind of a marathon read – so I'm splitting it in two ;)
On a Night Like This
Sora hadn't known he'd closed his eyes until they fluttered open again, shock taking a moment to hold his body still, blue irises blank as memories stuttered to the fore of his consciousness. A sharp inhalation broke the silence, the air sticking in his throat and making him cough sharply, head whipping up to search for her, to discover what had happened, heart thumping hard at the thought that she had put him to sleep as a final, contemptuous blow and continued on without bothering to so much as touch him.
But, as he looked around… he noticed that, while the darkness had gone – thank goodness, thank goodness – he… he wasn't on Radiant Garden's mountain anymore. He… wasn't actually anywhere he'd ever seen before.
Moonlight gleamed across the world, bright and unfettered by storm cloud, although the air continued to reek of the sour-sweetness that could only be associated with one single entity. Tongue darting out to nervously wet his lips, Sora eased himself up off the dirt – when had he ended up here? And where was the mountain? – and took a long, cautious look around.
No mountain in sight. In fact, the land was almost completely flat – this wasn't even Radiant Garden. The ground had a slight roll to it, like the gentle swell of waves turned earthy, but was otherwise lacking in any of the town's familiar countryside. Everything… he noticed, the longer he glanced about… was oddly grey. Like a black-and-white wash had been sent across the planet, obliterating virtually all colour, except for that which could dully exist within the retina, struggling to assert itself as something other than a shade of a shade.
Throat rasping as he inhaled, Sora stood up, feet scraping the earth, pale eyes lifting to the clear sky, no stars, only the broad face of the moon staring endlessly down. He saw trees tangled in a dark forest to the left, the faint outline of a path straggling away from it, passing beneath him and over to the right… and as he followed it with his gaze, a pinprick of colour caught his attention, shivering to life in the distance – a twinkle of orange. Sora blinked at it, hesitated, glanced around one last time and then headed over towards it, uncertain and confused.
As he walked, the ground became gradually more solid under his steps, until his bare foot met with cold stone, worn, dirty, scattered cobbled paving struggling out of the dirt. He was startled; there were no cobblestones anywhere around Radiant Garden. He lifted his foot, staring blankly at the oddity. Maleficent… she had sent him somewhere. Somewhere strange, and distant.
Another orange light twinkled into existence, bringing Sora's gaze snapping up again, a careful frown slowly creasing his features. He resumed his exploration, hesitating as his shoe scraped the stone, before continuing, stalking forward with quiet, cautious steps, eyes peeled for anything… unusual. More unusual than what already was.
…Was Maleficent around here somewhere, waiting for him?
Another sparkle of orange, and Sora could see a low wall surging from the bushes strewing the sides of the path up ahead, the tiny orange twinkles actually small lights tangled along its lumpy length. He was surprised – lights meant a town. The wall, the path, the orange illumination – there had to be something nearby. Someone. He took off at a jog, shoe slamming the pavement, bare foot slapping, only to slow again as he passed a deep-set pair of ancient gates. He eyed them worriedly, his mind restlessly cataloguing every part of this place that was different from where was he supposed to be. Exactly where had that witch banished him to?
Just as he was preparing to continue on, eyes swivelling back towards the orange lights, he heard a sound, a low clatter, coming from beyond the gates. He stopped, stared through the rusted bars for a moment, before shifting closer. Hands wrapping around the rough, icy metal, he attempted to peer through the shadows. The noise, it had seemed significant – after all, the rest of this place was practically as quiet as the grave, broken only by the scuffs and scrapes that he'd made himself. Perhaps the someone he'd been hoping for was back here somewhere? Maybe they could help him, at the very least tell him where he was…
"Hello? Is anyone there?" He held his breath, listened over the beating of his heart, and after several seconds heard a long, drawn out rasp, like something heavy being dragged over stone.
Lips parting to let loose his swift, shallow breaths, Sora released the gate, backed off a step, the noise somehow ominous, touching a part of him deep inside that didn't like what was being heard. He couldn't figure it out, didn't think he wanted to, when all of a sudden, with a terrible, dying creak, the gates swung open of their own accord, crashing sharply into the wall on either side, nearly clipping the end of the boy's nose – close enough to feel the breeze. The gasp from his chest was swallowed up by a long, loud moan from beyond the open gates, Sora jerking quickly, stumbling back, tripping over his own feet. Then, just as his adrenaline spiked, as he prepared to turn away, to flee – the voice became familiar, it clicked in his mind.
The boy hesitated, frozen momentarily in place, eyes going round. He swayed on the spot, scraped knees and elbows stinging in the cold, before taking a step forward, towards the gate. "…Hello?" he ventured, gingerly reaching out to touch the metal bars and lean forward, reluctant to move completely into that space beyond. And with good reason, he realised with a jolt – the place was a graveyard. A chill blew through his veins, teeth coming out to gnaw on his bottom lip, accidentally biting too hard as the voice came again, calling weakly, "Help… Sora, I'm here…"
Was that… Riku? Heart jumping, stomach diving, Sora was pushed through the gates and into the tombstones by his fear for the other boy, wondering worriedly what Maleficent could have done to him now.
Despite his instinctive fear of the cemetery, all it was, as he threaded his way along, was a collection of harmless tombstones. The earth was dry and dusty, rocky in places, and the moon lent an eerie glow to the setting, but there was nothing leaping out, no ghosts or ghouls – just the low, faint sound of Riku nearby, struggling as if he'd been hurt.
Sora found him towards the back of the lot, lying on his front, half supported by one bent arm but with his head hanging low, hair sweeping the dirt. His back looked terrible, almost making the brunet pause and gape all over again – except that, right now, Riku needed his help. Hurrying over to where the silver-haired male lay sprawled, a little away from the graves, Sora called concernedly, "Hey? Hey, I'm here. It's okay now." He bent quickly by the boy's side, touching his cold shoulders. "Tell me what hurts – what can I do? Where's Maleficent?"
Riku moaned softly, face falling towards the ground. Sora grabbed him, gathered him up in his arms, turning him over to look the boy in the face, and felt his world come crashing down around his ears as, instead, a grinning, fleshless skull rolled towards him.
This… was Maleficent's work. In his mind, Sora knew it, even as his eyes took in the sight with horror. A cry lodged in his chest, he sat for a moment and stared, fighting with all his might to keep from coming apart. "…Do your worst," he whispered, words drifting out into the night. "Throw at me whatever you want; I won't… I won't even flinch."
The skull of Riku's face creaked as the jaw slid open, the boy's plaintive voice coming out mournfully, "So…ra…"
The ground shook, like it had when Maleficent had made the stairs appear out of the ground, a crumbling, groaning crack filling the void of silence. His head whipped around, knowing his challenge to have been heard, and let out a sound of pure misery as he watched the earth above the graves begin to press upwards, the mounds sinking a few inches before rising again, the bodies from beneath digging their way up. "Oh, man," he quietly murmured. "Oh, man." Then, shivering and shaking, hardening his resolve, he cried, "I'm not scared yet!"
A piercing pain in his forearm made his mouth swing open, eyes popping wide, a small, dismayed noise escaping his throat as his gaze swivelled down to the not-Riku, its fingers, now devoid of all flesh and blood, cutting into him like knives as it gripped him. "How about now?" it asked, and a strangled scream burst out of Sora's lungs. Wildly, he kicked at the body, yanked at his arm, tore it free with a splitting of skin and spill of red, the first definitive colour aside from twinkles of orange to enter this lonely existence.
Fire! Fire ripped through his arm, pain like nothing he'd felt before, even with his fall down the mountain; he had been cut, deeply, the wounds filling up and brimming over. As the skeletal not-Riku laughed a high, chilling laugh that sounded not of the grave but of Maleficent, Sora scrambled back, eyes fixed with horror on the terrible lacerations. Pain! And blood – how were these allowed to exist? He had imagined that the injuries caused by the bats had been pure illusion, but this was no illusion! This was real, he was bleeding, and it wasn't – stopping!
Desperately, choking each breath in, he slammed his heels into the not-Riku, the half-flesh, half-skeleton being tumbling away with another cackle, face-down into the dirt. Throwing himself to his feet, the brunet whipped around frantically, in time to see gaping eye sockets and unhinged jaws, cadavers in various states of vile decay dragging themselves from their deep beds, all their sightless gazes fixed solely on him. A small moan popping from his lips, Sora glanced around, found no ready escape, and without pausing to think about the consequences, plunged the only way he knew to – over the not-Riku, and into the monsters' midst.
The silver-haired creature took a swing at his ankle, missed by a fraction, the boy hugging his bleeding arm to his chest and bolting through the headstones. The corpses were fast, faster than any reanimated body should by any stretch of the imagination have been, but their wild swings were clumsy, allowing him to somehow dart and duck and weave, just a hair out of reach each time, struggling urgently to avoid the sinkholes of where they'd come. As if of one mind, like undead puppets obeying a master's command, they lunged for him, Sora launching himself up onto the nearest, sturdy headstone and off of it again like a spring, heading for the open gates.
He was half-terrified, as he approached, that the great, barred barriers would slam shut before he could escape, but they sat still and open, allowing him to blow free of the evil place and back into the middle of the cobbled path. For a moment, as he stood there, panic reared up within Sora and gripped his brain, locked it in ice, stopped every thought hard and replaced it all with incomparable, screaming fear. The sounds behind him, though, pouring out of the cemetery like a broken elegy of damnation, got him moving again, heart an out-of-control creation in his chest as he fled down the small road, making for the orange twinkles of light, the promise of civilisation.
Revision: This was not illusory. The dulling thump in his arm, the slow soaking of his shirt with the smell of salt, it was real. His life was in danger, and right now, if he couldn't protect himself, then Aerith, Cloud and Leon didn't even matter. There was nothing that could be done for them if he got ripped limb from limb by a group of the animated dead.
They were coming for him; he could hear their shuffling steps hit the cobbles, their needy groans calling after him. He whipped past the low, lumpy wall that lined the path, the little lights twinkling soberly, panting frantically for breath. He passed more headstones, ones that this time were merely studded in a small plot beside the road, as if by afterthought, one of them a great effigy of a winged demon, and the chill in his bones grew colder. Biting back a whimper, Sora sprinted along, grinding to a halt only once he'd reached the entrance to a town square unlike any other he'd seen before in his life.
For the first time, he had escaped the terrible voices of the dead, faded behind him and gone, as if they didn't know how to follow this far. Gulping for air, fighting to keep from panicking any further, his blue eyes darted around with deepening, wondering dread. This place… this place was the nightmare.
It was entirely empty of life, or un-life, yet still managed to hold an air of menace powerful enough to make him shiver. A guillotine, rusted and stained, stood to one side, silently waiting, blade suspended high. Barred fences with deadly tips ringed the entrances to properties, all windows black, terrible faces carved into the walls. The orange fairy lights were strewn haphazardly here and there, lending an eerie feel to everything, and as a centrepiece, in the middle of the square sat a heavy stone fountain spewing toxic-looking water, the same shade as Maleficent's eyes, as her staff, and suddenly, with a sinking feeling, Sora was sure that he hadn't been sent anywhere in particular after all.
Gaze slowly taking the frightening tableau in, the boy stood a little straighter, holding his injured arm a little closer, and said, "I'm not scared, yet."
The guillotine shivered, and dropped with a sharp thunk. The fountain faltered, and surged, the water sounding thicker than it had, and slowly, that sour-sweet stench began to spread through the area. Sora stood his ground, refused to be intimidated.
Then, came a touch on his shoulder. He nipped at his tongue, turned his head slowly, and found himself face to face with… himself. His – shadow. It grinned at him, then punched him in a jab to the stomach before he could draw enough breath to deny its existence. Sora staggered back, winded, and the shadow advanced, his mirror image in ebony, yellow irises aglow. It lifted a foot, kicked him in the chest before he could recover, shoving him clear across the square, lower back slamming against the fountain's edge hard enough to briefly paralyse.
While he lay sprawled on the ground, gasping into tight lungs, Sora's shadow approached with a steady step, fists flexing, smile stretching, disproportionate to its face, little flecks of green licking out from between its lips like fire. It stood over him for several seconds, watching the brunet struggle to collect himself, then stabbed an arm down, seizing him by the shirt, and dragged him up. Grunting, Sora weakly grasped at its arm, trying to dislodge it, but he was numb, numb all over from the impact, only just beginning to buzz with returning sensation, when the shadow gripped his hair, turned him over, and plunged him headfirst into the viscous green fountain.
Sora was drowning. Air bubbled out of his lungs as he yelled, common sense trying to shut him up, to conserve what precious oxygen remained inside his body, but terror was overriding everything, was shrieking from his chest in a steady stream, until there was nothing left to exhale. Eyes bulging, arms flailing, body shoving back but getting nowhere, the pressure on the top of his head increased, pushing him further down. Sora coughed, hiccupped, began to inhale and felt a powerful, clawed hand wrap around his heart, squeezing as if it could pop the muscle from his chest.
It was only as the fluid flooded his lungs that the clutch in his hair relented, allowing him the opportunity to save himself. Sora gagged, swallowed the mixture, vomited it back up into the fountain, one whipping hand coming in contact with the cold surface of the shadow's flesh. Clinging to it, he ripped himself up from the dense water, staggering away from the fountain's edge, falling to his knees and bringing up a surge of green from deep inside.
The noise of the mess splattering to the hard stone ground, coupled with Sora's boots-deep groans, were all that disturbed the glass-like silence of the square. Gulping and gasping, coughing roughly, Sora's eyes were squeezed shut for several long, forgetful moments while he recovered. Eventually, though, the feel of the shadow's presence, the cloth of its frighteningly real shirt clutched still between shaking, pale fingers, sank in to his shock-stricken consciousness. Blue eyes lifted slowly, to find the creature once again grinning down. Several quiet seconds passed, before it parted its lips, its voice a whispering echo of his own:
The boy swallowed, shuddered, then clawed his way upright and stumbled away. It was a struggle to stay standing, his chest burned, throat choked up, eyes filled with a mixture of automatic tears and the vile green liquid, but – but staying wasn't an option. While running, he glanced fearfully over his shoulder, but as he turned the corner, exiting the town square, he saw… nothing. The shadow was gone, as abruptly as it had arrived. He veered, nearly crashed into the low wall, steadied himself and kept going, trailing flecks of water, gasping desperately, gratefully, at the air.
Who knew where the creature had disappeared to? Who the hell wanted to know? It was a product of Maleficent, he'd asked her to scare him, and so here he was, she'd pulled out the big guns. But he hadn't known it would be like this. Choking on remnants of the fountain's fluid, wiping his eyes and mouth as he sprinted, he hoped that Aerith and the others would appreciate what he was doing for them. For the whole town. Good God, they'd better have been grateful.
As he laboured back the way he'd come, he slowed fearfully when nearing the large gates from which the undead had come pouring, but only a hushed quiet met his ears; no voices, no scraping limbs – the gates were closed, looking like they hadn't been disturbed for half a decade. He stumbled, walked a few paces, staring in consternation… then, worrying about where they might have gone, picked up the pace again. He fled, leaving the silent cemetery behind, and made for the woods. He didn't know where he was going, where he was supposed to go from here – but the shadow had said run, and the only thing Sora could do was obey. He was frightened, shaken, arm still bleeding but forgotten, mind consumed in a whirlwind, heart still thundering as if confirming with every second that it still lived.
The cobblestones disappeared from beneath his flying steps, the ground becoming rough and sandy, trees springing up on all sides with protruding branches arched over like bony arms. Blindly, Sora lost himself in their midst, beginning to falter only when he could feel the distance between himself and the fountain. As soon as the steel trap of survival eased away from his thoughts, all the boy's pains swept up to devour him. He slowed sharply into a heavy limp, wincing with every step, one hand going back to touch and massage his back. "Ugh," he uttered, the first conscious noise he'd made since discovering the truth of the not-Riku. "Ugh." There was a weakness to his voice, a quiver, a rasping that came from having inhaled the putrid water, its flavour neutral, but the very idea of it more than enough to make him want to fall down and resume voiding his stomach of all its content.
Sora stopped, finally, leaning against one of the large, pale trees. For several minutes, he allowed himself to convalesce, to slowly pull his mind back together, hair dripping, clothes trailing water down his arms and legs. "Okay," he whispered, then cleared his throat. The hand of his uninjured arm forming a tight, trembling fist, forcing some strength into his words, he repeated, "Okay. Okay, Maleficent. What next?"
There was a rustle, the crunch of a foot over leaves, a sudden sweep of cold, reeking wind. He stiffened, blinked, turned with nerves twitching and sparking, to find the shadow standing directly behind him, still wearing its awful smile. They stood for a moment, staring at one another, before the shadow, faster than humanly possible, slammed both fists into Sora's chest. Even seeing it coming, he had no chance to protect himself. The breath once more punched out of him, a strangled noise creaking from his lips, the boy fell backwards, but instead of hitting the tree, instead of whacking his head, bruising his spine anew – he simply fell into abyssal black. As if a door had opened up within the trunk itself, he vanished into darkness.
Sora didn't know how long he fell for… only that it seemed to last forever, with almost no sensation of motion whatsoever. The only thing that alerted him to the fact that an abstract creation like friction still existed was his rustling hair and clothing, as though he were dropping headfirst towards… towards darkness. It felt like a dream; like he'd fallen asleep, and couldn't wake up. In a world where nothing existed except one long shade of black, how could anything possibly be real?
Then, without knowing which way was up, or which down, he landed, softly, on his feet. Knees bending carefully into it, heart throbbing in his throat at the sudden return of – well, some form of equilibrium, he looked around, and met only black, black, black nothing wherever his eyes fell. There were no surfaces, no corners, no edges, no light.
He had thought that – the grey, cemetery-place had been silent, but… this darkness, it held an element of silence that Sora had never encountered before. There was just… there was nothing. His mind couldn't grasp it, couldn't deal with the concept – there had to be something, some glimmer, some twinkle, some essence of life. He could look at his own hands, could see them in front of his face, but without a source of light, how was that even possible?
Wherever he was now, it was an impossibility. It was an impossibility, and it was threatening to start pulling his brain apart through the sheer frustration of trying to create an environment to thrive in.
Turning in a circle, the boy searched anxiously for a way out, a sign-post of some sort; he even craned his head back, and gazed upward with mouth gaping, struggling to see some hint of the portal through which he'd come. But… there was nothing to see. This was all there was, this permanent tundra of space. Wherever he looked, it was the same, in any, every direction, panic beginning to build in his chest, a trapped feeling, like being shut inside a box with no way out. He gulped, trying to force down his fears, chin snapping down, sweat popping out on his forehead, reminding himself forcefully that this was what she wanted. Maleficent had brought him here. And… and if there was a way in, there'd be a way out.
So, he ran. He couldn't feel the air brushing past, couldn't hear his feet hit the ground, could only listen to his breaths and pulse, with eyes straining for something in the void to focus on. His head started hurting, his eyes itching, aching as time went by, but as to whether or not time did pass was another story – with no way of measuring even a second's progress, Sora was lost in limbo. If he had stumbled out the other side of this a hundred years old, white from his roots to his toenails, he wouldn't have been surprised. But eventually… he just had to stop. His muscles, if no other part of him, could feel how long it had been, and cried out for rest. Panting, perspiring and feeling unhealthy, he bent over double, hands on knees, waiting for the pain in his temples to slow.
Blue eyes squeezed shut as salty sweat stung at the corners, dribbling down the sides of his face. Heaving a great breath, he swiped a forearm across his burning forehead, then suddenly froze, eyelids popping back open as realisation struck. His arm – it was the one that the not-Riku had sliced, flesh-stripped fingers like blades, and he had been in so much pain from it, bleeding so freely, but… he pulled it away from his head, staring in wonder at the untouched surface of his skin, whole and smooth and – fine.
It was all just… illusory.
None of it was real. Maleficent was the Queen of Nightmares, but… but when something happened in a nightmare, as real as it felt while you were trapped inside the dream, eventually, eventually you had to wake up, and none of it would follow you out. Theoretically, the same applied… here.
Slowly, Sora straightened, still breathing hard, but heartbeat under control. He felt… calm. Sure, it might not last long – it was hard to close your eyes and tell yourself none of it was real when it still felt so dangerous and awful – but… he had confidence now. A little bit of it. Just for a while. He had confidence that, no matter what she threw at him, and no matter what it did to him… he would wake up, in the end, and would be okay. If he could just – hold out until then. Until the waking point. If he could…
In fact, never mind the 'if'. He would.
He licked his lips nervously, lifted his chin, bright gaze darting about the emptiness. "…I'm still not scared."
As if this was the long-awaited cue, from inside the darkness, a pulse blossomed, like a spark igniting, an iris developing in the void, swirls of deepest blue, a living bruise on the face of existence. Hesitating only long enough to ensure that this wasn't some new threat, Sora made for it, wary, but anxious to leave this purgatory far behind. He paused as he reached the anomaly, inspecting it cautiously. Then, helpless to do anything else, he extended a hand into it and, when he was able to draw it out again unscathed, stepped into the iris with only a flicker of apprehension…
…and stepped back into life. It was raining, cold. His first instinct was that he must have made it back, was on the mountainside, standing in the mud… but this was definitely – far from the case. With a sinking sensation, Sora gazed around, wondering how long this would go on for.
He stood in the dead-end of a dark alleyway, in the pouring elements, the sky black with turmoil far above, extending over the tops of a tall, silent, lightless city. After the darkness of nothing, however, it was all as clear as day, he could see everything, could see things. It was an improvement, if nothing else. And… it was, hopefully, one step closer to victory. Right sneaker scuffing the hard asphalt ground, shoelace ends skipping along behind him, Sora slowly started walking, heading for the alley's mouth.
With the rain hissing constantly around him, the boy pushed back his heavy hair, gazing slowly at his new environment. Catching a glimpse of motion to his right, he twisted sharply to see – ah. Only his shadow, stretched across the ground. But then – could it ever be 'only' a shadow again? Rubbing the heel of one wet palm against his forehead, Sora shook his head with a fan of droplets and continued in a tentative exploration of his surroundings, anxiety tempered by a cold, nervous comfort that, no matter what happened, none of it could truly hurt him.
Out of the corner of one blue eye, Sora was again distracted by a flicker, face snapping sharply around, focus landing again on the shadow that lay at his feet. Brows lowering over a narrow stare, the boy hesitated suspiciously, knowing perhaps a little better now than to trust what he was seeing. Somewhere at the back of his mind, a voice nagged urgently, telling him to recognise his right from his left. But of course, he already knew such things; he wasn't an idiot. At the current moment, he could raise his left hand in front of his face and block the shadow from view.
Except that… hadn't he only a minute ago seen it on the other side of his body? He was almost too afraid to turn around. Face moving degrees at a time, the boy slowly swivelled to meet the threat head-on, even as, in his peripheral, he saw the second shape beginning to bulge up from the hard ground, like a balloon inflating out of tar.
Green eyes flared at him in the darkness, a sick feeling developing in his hollow stomach, the shadow-Sora smiling dementedly. In the next second, a clawed hand like ice wrapped itself piercingly around his left knee, points sinking into his flesh. With a startled shriek, he jumped away, hands and elbows flying at the pitch-black creature that clung to him. He knocked it loose onto the street, scrambling several paces back, watching as it shook itself and straightened, almost as tall as he was, yellow-eyed, humanoid and featureless. Truly a shadow come to life.
Features creased with pained distress, the brunet quickly inspected his leg, rivulets of red already trickling earthward, and more than anything else in that moment, Sora felt a brief burst of frustration. Damn it, he was getting sick of this. The hot emotion lasted only seconds, however, draining away from the punctures in his knee, head coming up to stare at the two shadows, side by side, a distinctly dull, drone-like air hovering around the one that had grabbed him. It had none of the menacing intelligence that the shadow-Sora emanated, puppet of Maleficent, would-be murderer.
The mimic's smile never faltered, and the boy became aware of more flashes of motion, dark pools appearing on the bitumen like oil spills, rising and bubbling and taking shape – a veritable army of them. As he slowly turned his head – knowing better than to show his back to his shadow-self – he saw them growing, forming long, hooked limbs, one set of glowing eyes opening after another.
They were surrounding him, flexing their claws as they came to life, the blood ribboning down his leg, hot, stinging. Blue eyes squeezed momentarily shut, a deep breath being pulled, and on the exhale, at the peak of his gathered threads of courage, Sora twisted away from his nemesis and fled. Beating out an erratic tempo of one shoe on, one shoe off, the boy threw himself along the lanes and alleyways, an endless network of them among the silent buildings, drenched to the bone, bare foot being torn along the sole from the roughness of the illusive streets. And always, on every side, shadows continued to burst into being, dragging their way up from the cold ground, eyes gleaming with little but the mindless urge to sink their talons into his soft body and twist, tearing him limb from limb within the prison of a nightmare.
The environment, Maleficent's environment, was working against him, the darkness growing ever deeper the further into the empty city he ran, the intensity of the rain blinding his senses to virtually all external input. The sides of the buildings were blurs, blank doors screaming of traps, all possible escape routes invisible through the endless curtain of sheet upon sheet of downpour. He pounded through the town with the shadow army growing around him, appearing in front, behind, on the sides, forcing him left and right and lunging up and over chain-link fences. There was no strategy to where he went; he didn't even know this place, it was impossible to do anything but hope that the next turn didn't lead to a brick-wall dead end.
But, no matter how long he ran, they kept coming, and it wasn't going to be long until he collapsed. He could feel it again, could feel the coldness around his heart – not squeezing this time, but there, ready, as if Maleficent could scent his weakness and was preparing herself for the inevitable fall. And then…? His heart, he supposed with a flash of blind, tearing panic, would be hers. Would he die, or would he just end up a slave like Riku?
Which was the preferable option, he wondered?
Up ahead, he caught his first glimmer of light in this abandoned place, and instinctively headed for it, even with foreknowledge warning that light, where Maleficent was concerned, was not any form of salvation. But – it would be the end of this, he was sure of it. He couldn't just keep running. She needed to let him declare that he wasn't scared, and change the scenery again before he collapsed.
He broke out of the endless warren of streets, emerging into a large crossroads, jerking to a halt as the light burst into his eyes, briefly dazzling him. It really wasn't all that bright, but in comparison to what he was used to, it was like coming face to face with a star. Shielding his eyes, his head tilted back to take in the sight of the massive skyscraper towering above him on the other side of the open space, coloured lights blazing up its walls, shining out from over its doors, a would-be beacon that was encased on all sides by dark buildings that somehow managed to swallow its illumination, confining its glow to this one area of the entire city.
One hand coming up to scratch the back of his head, Sora forgot himself and stared for a minute, dazed, brought out of it only when a hand touched his shoulder. Jolting, he twisted, and received a head-butt to the face, staggering back and falling, shadows swarming around him the instant he hit the ground, their claws sweeping over his body, plucking at his hair, his clothing, his flesh, with the shadow-Sora watching on. He thrashed in their grasp, panting and choking, smothered on all sides by their weight, their clutching talons picking him apart.
After about a minute of listening to the brunet's increasingly gasping cries, Maleficent's puppet waded into the fray, smacking the occasional lesser being out of the way, one hand diving down and grabbing him by the throat, dragging him up and out. With their claws still scraping at him, some kind of desperation in them now, as if sensing their opportunity coming to a close, Sora was held aloft, legs swinging and kicking, the strength of the shadow incomprehensible. Its eyes were cold now, no smile in place all of a sudden.
"Hurry up and die. Give up. You can't win, even if you continue to fight. Freedom from fear can only come when you give in to it; once you do, will it cease to hurt you."
Face turning a squeezed red, short nails digging wildly at the strangling grip, Sora took no heed, the words making no impact on his slowly crushing windpipe. Distantly hearing an impatient, "Tch," in the next moment the boy was thrown clear across the heads of the gathered monsters, crunching to the ground at the foot of the stairs leading up to the bright building, its doors lit from within.
There was a low, mournful sound like a haunting wind blowing through ancient trees, and when the boy, coughing and groaning, clutching his bruised throat, shoved himself up to his knees with one hand, he saw the shadow-beings coming for him like a dark wave. With a whimper, eyes wide with terror, already bleeding all over from their knife-like touches, he scrambled on hands and knees up the stone steps, still gasping harshly. Though his lips formed the words, "I'm not scared, I'm not scared!", there was no voice to his claim, and absolutely no truth. He was scared of the pain, terrified by the thought of being back inside that crush of damned bodies, of being once again at the mercy of that wicked, green-eyed version of himself.
Hurling himself upright, he lurched for the bright doors to the building, slammed against them, heard them rattle. Hands grabbing hold of the long metal bar across the front of the left one, he shook the door hard, struggling to yank it open, then shoved forth with every ounce of strength still left to him, and fell through into the artificially-lit interior, the shadow-beings scratching at his heels.
As he stumbled away from the entrance, the sound of their moans began to drift and fade. Glancing back fearfully, he found that the world had changed again; wherever he was now, it wasn't inside any skyscraper – it wasn't even in the empty city, and the door he'd come in through was no longer in existence. Within the minute, the voices of the shadows had left his ears, a silence existing that felt a mixture of oppressive and relief. He was alone. Not even the shadow-Sora had followed him through.
It took Sora a few minutes to recover. Slumping against the nearest upright surface, he took his hair in his hands, head bowed, eyes gently closed as he fought the sudden urge to start crying. Hot tears stung his lids, tongue coming out to be clamped between lips between teeth, shivering inhalations fighting to nourish his exhausted body. Oh, man. This was hard. This was hard. He hadn't… expected… any of this. He hadn't expected this level of raw terror, and he didn't know how much more of it he could take… All he, all he knew was that he had no real choice in the matter.
Aerith, Cloud and Leon were very distant in this moment. Even Riku, poor, tortured slave – he was far away from Sora right now. Fighting his way through all of this… would their lives even be marginally improved if he died in here? In this trap of one dream after another? He felt sick. He had a wail building up inside, right beneath his diaphragm, but no way of letting it loose. Digging his knuckles into one eye, he struggled for several calming breaths, found that they were shallow, superficial. As long as he achieved what he needed to. That would… make it worthwhile. Even if he did end up dying to get there…
Fingers gently stroking his throat where the shadow-Sora had strangled him so tightly, the boy looked warily around, found himself in a hallway; the walls were tall, brightly finished and new-looking, white and gleaming like marble. Beneath him, his now-uninjured bare foot scrunched its toes against the feel of carpet, thin but soft, a rich, vibrant red fabric that covered the ground neatly, stretching from one end of the passage to the other and around the corners. Such opulence was unlike anything Sora could remember seeing before – it certainly beat the old, dusty rug running the wooden-panelled hallway in the Committee's house. With a cautious frown, dipping his chin and clearing his sore throat, eyes darting for the threat, the inevitable threat, he found himself, in pattern, alone for now.
He wondered if, if he just – stayed put – it would all remain paused like this. If he just stopped exploring, stopped trying to push this forward… if he stayed right here… maybe he would avoid it all. There'd be nothing else jumping out at him, nothing to make him bleed or run. It was always when he started looking around that the nasty surprises appeared. If he'd sat down on the side of the cobbled road back in the cemetery place, maybe the dead wouldn't have come to life, the shadow-Sora wouldn't have appeared and tried to drown him.
But then, if that had been the case – wouldn't he still be sitting there, even now? If motion denoted a furthering of the horror, it also got him closer, hopefully, to ending it all. Sitting in one place… that was like giving up to the fear. Admitting that he was – too scared to go on. And hadn't the shadow-Sora wanted just that? Hadn't it wanted him to give up? If that was the case, then…
Well. Like he'd already realised – he really didn't have a choice.
Heaving a deep sigh, Sora pushed away from the wall, pushing cold, shaking fingers through his hair. Turning tired, stinging eyes on his surroundings, he gulped down every fragment of self-preservation and ventured forth into this new version of reality. Somewhere, Maleficent would be waiting. Somewhere, his shadow was no doubt lurking. He could only tighten his fists, grit his teeth, and wait for it all to explode, yet again, all around him.
He travelled the long hallway in silence, flames burning in brackets along the walls, still and almost entirely soundless as they lit the way. Each time he passed one, Sora caught sight of his shadow stretching along the wall, eyed it sharply, waiting for the inevitable moment when it would eye him back and take on its frightening smile. But, so far – nothing. The longer he walked, the more tense he became, but still, still nothing happened. He was ready for the chase, ready for the fight, ready to flee yet again and find some other window out of this world and into the next, but nothing happened. He just – kept – walking. It was threatening to finish his mind more than the endless waves of attack had. This anticipation was driving him mad.
One hand trailing the wall, the teen cautiously made it to the hallway's bend, without event. He knew it was coming, knew something was lurking in the air – could feel it, cold inside his veins like a chilled breath exhaled from lifeless lungs…
As if to prove him right, the moment he stepped around the corner into the last stretch of passage, the bowls of fire periodically adorning the fine walls surged with some unseen pulse of power and flared black, briefly blotting out all vision. Green was swift to follow, flames licking high towards the ceiling, casting their coloured light across the walls and carpet, darkness swimming in every available crevice and corner. Sora, his fingers wrenched back to his body, threw a tight, fearful look over his shoulder, found himself surrounded by shadow – but for now, the dancing, erratically flickering veils were remaining lifeless, as yet without his green-eyed doppelganger to draw them into the third dimension. Swallowing, pulse thumping rapidly in his head, Sora anxiously hesitated, even as his mind wearily acknowledged that the only true direction was onward.
Turning his attention forward, he saw the hallway's end up ahead, a flat blackness as solid as any wall, untouched by the eerie, harsh green glow of the flames. Feeling like a man headed for his own execution, Sora nevertheless forced his hands to be loose by his sides, raising his chin in a gesture of defiant resolve, however superficial it might have appeared. He figured that if Maleficent took it at face-value that he wanted to be frightened, desired her wicked magicks to swarm him for the thrill of it, then she would believe anything, so long as he looked convincing enough.
With only one short breath to puff his chest, the boy hardened his resolve, made it like diamond, and strode forward. He could feel this night's events approaching their close, whether he finally gave in or Maleficent simply dealt the killing blow for once and for all; the only thing he could do in answer was make sure he faced it on his own terms. He wouldn't beg, and he would not cry – if he died this night, then he did so having interfered with Maleficent for hopefully long enough to prevent her reaching Radiant Garden before daybreak. It would be a heroic death, one of great meaning… if ever such a thing could exist, that was…
After what felt like only seconds, Sora had reached the passage's end, found himself staring into pure darkness, and realised that he had already faced such a thing. It hadn't hurt him to be inside it, even if last time he had been pushed rather than consciously taking this first step out into it… He wondered, only very fleetingly, if this would make the difference between ever escaping again, or being mired in it forever after… but, he also discovered, when he searched himself for an emotion on the theory, that as long as darkness was all it was, and as long as everyone in Radiant Garden would end up okay… he didn't really have a problem with that.
He never really had been afraid of the dark.
Without waiting to test himself further, Sora walked into the all-encompassing wall of shadow, and imagined himself to be swallowed by it for all eternity. It was, if nothing else, a far more peaceful end to it all than he had dared to hope for… but when he opened his eyes, never realising they had slid shut at that critical moment of giving himself over to the abyss, he saw – a light. Ahead of him, like someone had opened a skylight into the isolated existence of nothing at all, illumination softly engulfed a small portion of the world. Wary of such an unexpected occurrence, the teen debated for a moment, glancing back and seeing that after all his conviction, he was still precisely where he had been – the world had not shifted yet again, the green-lit hallway sat patiently behind him, firelight still making no impact on the darkness, but neither disappearing to abandon him like a one-way train to nowhere.
Sora was – confused. He turned back to again take in the sight of that one spotlight of what looked like natural light, flowing down from an unknown source. Now that he peered harder, though, he was sure he could make out a – a shape inside of it. He was sure that it hadn't been there before… but he hadn't exactly been searching for anything, he had to admit. That there had been light at all had been revelation enough; to imagine that there was something within the light required a level of attention that only now that he realised nothing had changed, even with his martyred step into darkness for the sakes of all those incapable of protecting themselves, snapped into place. Following hard on its heels was the grim supposition that… this wasn't over yet. He had thought he was freeing himself from Maleficent's grip by taking steps to sacrifice himself for the good of others, but – what had it been that the shadow-Sora had said?
"Freedom from fear can only come when you give in to it; once you do, will it cease to hurt you."
And while some might have considered his action a form of surrender – he was pretty sure Maleficent wouldn't view it in quite the same way. To her, giving in would be begging; it would be screaming; it would be lying down, too scared to move even a single foot forward, and waiting to die. Wishing for it. That was how Maleficent operated.
Well – Sora wasn't going to co-operate. No way, no chance. He still had some fight left, and this night wouldn't end for him until he'd spent every last fragment of it.
"…I'm not afraid. I'm not done." It whispered from his lips. With fresh determination, the brunet struck out for the light, the new development, the next step in his advancement through one night-terror to the next. The closer he got, however, the more confused he felt himself becoming. What he was seeing, even what he thought he was seeing – it made no sense. None whatsoever. Face creasing into a mystified frown, he paused just short of entering the light and spent several minutes simply staring, struggling to figure out what his eyes were relaying.
It was – it looked to be – a baby's bassinet, powder-blue, ruffled with silk, sitting snugly on a white stand. It was… pretty. And strange, because the one thing that just did not belong in a place such as this was a baby's anything – wasn't this place created by Maleficent? Wasn't it all? Why this, then? What significance did it hold? Was she simply trying to – throw him as much off-balance as she could, messing with him to maximum effect rather than just settling on the old stand-bys of fear and intimidation?
Sora leaned forward, peered into the cradle's depths, and literally felt the blood drain from his face. If that was Maleficent's aim, then… by completing it with the added touch of including an actual baby was sure as hell doing the trick.
A baby. Inside the bassinet, wrapped up and sleeping soundly, head covered in a golden mop of curls. It had the longest eyelashes, and wore the most… peaceful expression. If this was the coup-de-grace, then Sora didn't know what to do; no matter what, there was no way he was hurting an infant.
It was odd, though… the longer he stood there, the more he became aware of the slightest amount more within the light's pool… That which was solid, the baby in its cradle, that was obvious enough, but he felt like every time he turned his eyes to the sides, he was catching just the faintest impression of something else in the unlikely tableau. Much like trying to look at a star directly, every time Sora tried to focus on what the extras were, they seemed to fade even further from view. But, if he relaxed his vision and lowered his eyelids, if he gazed only at the baby, he could – sort of make out what the shapes were. They looked… they were kind of like… he felt like he was seeing the shadows of two empty thrones, one on either side of the blue bassinet.
Come to think of it, the silks did look fine, the craftsmanship of the cradle more talented than anyone claiming to be a carpenter down in the town could ever have achieved… Just who exactly was he looking at, here? Who was this baby, slumbering nestled between two ghosts of thrones?
Slowly, a theory attempted to build itself in Sora's mind, but no matter how he looked at it, he couldn't figure out why Maleficent would be inspired to include such an infant in a reality entirely of her own devising.
Bewildered, the boy stepped hesitantly closer, into the light's boundaries. When nothing dire happened – nothing at all, in fact – he couldn't help but… reach down to touch the baby. "It – doesn't make sense," he murmured, the tip of his finger coming into contact with one warm, soft cheek, just short of brushing against those long eyelashes. "Does it… princess?"
The infant didn't stir, undisturbed by his presence, his touch, the gentle tone of his voice. But – that's not to say that nothing else did. Sora felt the vibration in his unadorned foot before any other sense could be alerted, a shivering shaking in the cold, white stone of the light's ground. Sound was not long in following, rumbling like thunder, like grinding boulders, approaching rapidly, louder with every sharp second.
Sora's hand had snatched away from the crib the very instant his mind picked up the danger, but by then it was far, far too late. He whipped around, the baby still completely, unfairly, unaffected in its dreaming behind him. His eyes drawn to the green flames of the hallway, the distance of a large room away, Sora wondered quickly if his best bet was to attempt to flee back the way he'd come. He got a rather rapid answer to this mental question when, with a trembling roar, a gigantic black dragon, with burning green eyes and a mess of jagged teeth, clawed feet slamming like piston-powered trash cans into the ground hard enough to leave cracks beneath the torn-up red carpet, came barrelling out from around the passageway's corner. It looked like a tight fit, an eruption of pale stone and dust splintering outward as the monster burst from the hallway's confines, another bellow loosing hoarsely from its jaws.
The monster lunged into the darkness, long, horned tail smashing the hall's exit, destroying Sora's one escape route with a crunching tumble of stone and mortar. Dismay flickered in him as he saw it happen, but it had only the tiniest of seconds in which to exist, smothered almost instantly by an all-consuming terror as the dragon came roaring through the gloom, jaws agape and slavering. It slammed to a stop just before the circle of light, Sora crying out and cowering, ducking down to cover his head as an explosion of green fire vomited from the great beast's belly. It engulfed everything, devoured all – Sora's squeezed-shut eyes were destined to never open again.
…But then, gradually, he came to realise that – he still lived. With an audible gasp, his eyelids snapped back up, blue irises almost entirely taken up by frightened black pupils. He lifted his face from within the harbour of his own arms, gazing out in confusion, feeling the bassinet bump against his back. He jerked hard against it as the monster bared its dripping teeth, swung its front talons in a fury, and screamed, "Don't you dare touch that child, idiot of a boy!"
Sora blinked. It sounded – like Maleficent. Suddenly, it was like his heart started beating again, as if it had frozen in his chest and was now erupting into a frenzy, the word, "You!" choking from his lips, eyes wide. The dragon bellowed, reared up on its hind legs, green eyes wild with fury, stretching up and up, its height incredible, its girth terrifying, claws flashing in the faintest backwash of the pale light.
"I said, get away!" Maleficent screeched, and in a fluid shift, the world changed, hard light bursting into existence, a broad circle of sand swirling out and hardening into a tiny island hovering in the middle of nothingness. Sora's gaze remained stuck to her in horror as her form also shifted, became like a fluid creation and morphed, growing taller and taller, scales pooling together, legs thickening, arms strengthening, eyes closing and then opening as great, green, piercing globes inside a humanoid black head. She became a shadow, like Sora's shadow had been, only she was enormous, virtually featureless, she was destruction itself, pure darkness, pure rage.
As she swung her enormous fists, bending low to smash the earth close to the boy, Sora instinctively turned and threw himself over the cradle, snatching the bassinet down from its stand and covering it with his body as slabs of stone and sand blasted into the air. The carrier's opening was blocked off by his body, the rain of stinging dirt slashing at Sora like knives, but the baby remained unharmed, protected. Panting, sweat dripping off his nose, Sora caught a glimpse of blue within the blues of the silks covering the bassinet, and jerked his stare slightly upward to see a pair of wide, pale eyes studying his face. The breath caught momentarily in his throat. For a long pause, Sora couldn't move, or even really think – all he knew was that those eyes belonged to nothing that Maleficent had dreamed up to frighten him. They were the eyes of – someone else. Someone completely different.
These blue eyes were the antithesis to Maleficent's green.
Sand and debris were whipping around the tiny island in a whirlwind, granules like pieces of glass, a terrible, sour-sweet wind howling around and around. Shivering, gasping, Sora hunkered low, wrapping his arms around the blue bassinet, keeping his gaze on the baby, flinching and wincing as his back and arms were sliced by the swirling particles.
As he watched, his face sank into a worried frown, the baby starting to wriggle and writhe, odd flashes of expression crossing its little face. Then, without warning, it drew a breath, opened its mouth wide, features slowly scrunching, and began to cry. Tears shimmered down its face, cheeks and forehead reddening as it bawled. Sora yanked back, startled by the new, sudden addition to the rest of the cacophony, somehow piercing straight through the general chaos being caused by Maleficent, a noise ringing above all.
Above him, the gigantic shadow-beast also reeled, Maleficent's enraged shriek filling the heavens, vibrating the very air. Crying out, covering his ears as the mammoth sound assaulted him, Sora curled inward, forehead nearly touching his knees as he struggled to somehow protect his senses from the twin invasion of voices.
"YOU WOKE HER!"
Head coming up, a desperate look thrown up over his shoulder, Sora's stomach contracted, eyes going round as the gigantic shadow lifted one powerful arm, rough-hewn hand curled into a fist, poisonous green eyes fixed firmly, directly, on him. With a yell, he dived into the bassinet, snatching the infant out, stumbling as he launched himself towards the island's edge, no other escape route in sight. It was futile, though – Maleficent's bellow grew in his ears, in his head, her speed too much for him to counter. As he leapt for the sandy precipice, she caught up to him, with enough momentum to crush, to destroy, to obliterate.
Sora never stood a chance. The impact came, slamming the back of his head, and as he fell forward, he knew himself to finally be dead.
That's when… he collapsed to the cold mud, hitting hard, right temple knocking against a rock, momentarily stunning him still. He didn't move, didn't breathe, didn't even blink. He felt the icy dampness seeping through his clothes, into his hair, felt the stray spot of an ending shower of rain, a hush sweeping across the world. He coughed weakly, tasting blood at the back of his throat, mind incapable of processing much of anything except that his head – his head really hurt.
Then, he remembered the baby. With a gasp that turned into a choke, he shoved himself up, swooned a little as dizziness clutched him, but he blinked through it, searching his arms desperately and finding only empty space. "…Where?" he rasped in confusion.
His gaze was brought up by the sound of a heaving breath, followed by a low, furious scream. Terror spiking in his veins, Sora threw himself back as Maleficent herself came charging at him, her robes flowing, horned head thrust back as she hated him with her eyes, glowing staff coming down on his shoulder. "You pathetic fool! You woke her up!" She swung again, smashed it with all her strength into his side, Sora crying out in pain, scrunching up into a foetal position. He couldn't understand, didn't know what was happening, thoughts still in one place and one place only.
Voice high and breathless, he demanded, "Wh-where's the baby?"
The witch released her staff with one hand, clutching at the side of her head and spitting, "She's in my head, you vile brat! Oh, this is the part of this ridiculous curse that I simply cannot stand – shut up, you pathetic little shadow!" Sora stared as she dragged black nails down her death-like face, expression contorted with frustration and perhaps even – pain? Then, she returned her focus to him, a wildness in her features that hadn't previously existed, fury like none other. "You have done this. You should have stayed away, you should have died." Gripping the staff tightly again, she rushed towards him, raising it high, directly over the teen's skull. "You woke Aurora," she hissed between clenched teeth.
She slashed downwards, but – with a blur of motion, another body entered the equation, another voice, a hand catching the radiating orb before it could impact. "You're wrong!" Silver hair stuck in clumps to the wet surface of his skin, Riku glared up at the witch, breathing hard, broken wrist complete with the frayed and now snapped strap tight around it. Maleficent stared; down on the ground, lifting his face in shock, so did Sora.
It was – Riku. He was… real, standing there, completely flesh and blood, and very much – not a puppet of Maleficent's design. And this meant that Sora… he was… back on the mountain. He was – out of Maleficent's grip.
It was very suddenly… hard to breathe.
Above him, in front of him, the pale boy swallowed, voice hoarse and harsh, as if it had been a long time since he'd properly used it. "Sora didn't wake her, you know what woke her – it's the same thing that always wakes her, and the one thing you can't control." With grim, trembling satisfaction, he told her, "Daylight's coming, Maleficent. You spent so long trying to crush one kid's will to survive, you forgot about the whole town below, filled with people who wouldn't even see you coming. And now, it's too late. If you don't get back to the castle before daybreak, you'll disappear. You'll vanish. No one will know you ever existed."
For a long moment, nobody spoke, the incredulous staring continuing. Maleficent's lips parted numbly. "…How dare you." Eyes flaring, she tore the staff free from his clutches, swung it around, preparing to bring it down on him, Riku simply hunching his shoulders and waiting, bracing for it. "How dare you defy me, you despicable, foul, revolting little –"
Sora surged up, hands flying out, nearly falling straight to his knees again but snatching hold of the rod, halting its flight just as Riku had for him. "No!" he panted, chest hitching, eyes turning up to meet her gaze, unafraid this time that she would try to suck him in, unafraid in general after having endured all she had thrown at him so far. Now, he could only find distress in his heart when he thought about the things she did. His fear had been scoured out of him in a baptism of fire. "Stop... stop it. Stop hurting him!"
It was Riku's turn to stare, amazement slack on his face, confusion that Sora hadn't simply stepped aside and let it happen. "You can't keep doing this, Maleficent," the brunet rasped, whole body shaking with a mixture of the cold, the emotion. Teeth gritting together, he choked, "I won't let you hurt him! N-not Riku, and not… anybody!"
For a long minute, silence reigned on the mountainside. Nearby, Maleficent's carriage sat with its struts digging into the ground, abandoned by Riku with only a fragment of the belt left behind. Overhead, the storm had petered out, and even the universal dripping had slowed almost to ceasing. The earth was slick, but it would dry with enough sunlight. Maleficent's influence on the night was waning, and the longer they stood without speaking, blue eyes staring into green, the more the three of them became aware of it. The sour-sweet wind… it was gone. The air was clean again.
Stunned, Maleficent snatched her staff away from the boy's hands, but rather than trying again to beat either of them, she backed off several startled steps. "…You stopped me," she realised slowly. "You – tricked me into wasting my time… all my time… on you." Genuine shock appeared across her features. "…Incredible."
"And now," Sora said shakily, "it's time for you to go back, right? You can't stay down here – Leon said… that you can't stand the light."
Gradually her eyes thinned. Her chin lifted, shoulders straightened, a regal pose once again being adopted, as if she were of the very family she had murdered those centuries ago, landing herself with this curse in the first place. "…In that case," she coldly told him, "next time, whoever 'Leon' is… I'll be sure to return the favour."
Angrily, the boy snapped back, "You won't, because I'll stop you again! I'll meet you up here! I'm not scared, yet!"
With this final insult, Maleficent recoiled, teeth bared, enraged but knowing full well that she hadn't the time to waste, not anymore. "I'll see you again when you're a man, then," she hissed viciously, before crying, "Riku! Get the cart. We're getting out of here, right this instant."
She turned, stomping over towards the stationary vehicle, reached it without it having been lifted yet. Turning, the witch snarled, "Move yourself, idiot boy! Don't think I can't destroy you if I choose to, your heart belongs to me."
But Riku… was still standing over by Sora. Staring at the boy, this one, insignificant-looking boy, who had somehow, through means unknown, had – defeated the witch. He hadn't died; hadn't been captured; hadn't gone mad. He had felt the touch of Maleficent's claws around his heart, but still hadn't given in…
"…I can't," the silver-haired boy croaked. Turning to Maleficent with wide eyes, he repeated, "I can't. I can't do it anymore." Body twisting so that he faced her directly, gaze blank with catharsis, he said, "If you want to kill me, then kill me. Take me inside your world, and finish me off. But you might not get back to the castle in time, if you do. Because I think…" His voice trailed off for a moment. He looked astounded. "I think I'll fight you in there. If you try. I'll – I'll fight you. I want… to feel the sun again. If I have to die, or get rid of you, to get that… then I will."
Silence. Maleficent had no response ready, no energy left to whip him into a submission that very possibly wouldn't come, no time left to battle with yet another boy determined against her.
Slowly, Sora's ice-cold hand crept into the similarly chilled, white fingers of Riku's, and gripped. They stood before her, neither one willing to budge to her violent will, simply… waiting to see what her next move would be.
After a while, Sora knew. He leaned in towards the silver-haired male, and whispered, "We should go. She isn't – going to stop you. I don't think. Come… come home with me." It took several long moments, but eventually, Riku inclined his head in disbelieving, dazed agreement. Tightening his hand around the brunet's, he allowed himself to be turned, and led away. Neither of them looked back, walking stiffly, hardly daring to breathe.
Sora was the first to break and run. Riku was yanked along for several jolting steps, before joining in, matching the other boy's pace, until the pair of them were sprinting at breakneck speed, gasping, terrified more in this one moment than either had been actually standing up to the witch. They ran, and they ran, until Maleficent was left far behind, the town growing nearer with every step, twinkling lights a beacon through the night.
Back at the carriage, Maleficent had watched them go, feeling emptier than she had for a long… long time. Inside the confines of her head, the murdered princess continued to wail, a warning of daylight to come. Those wretched fairies, cursing this illusion into her embittered soul… as if some form of poetic justice were being served…
Stunned at the way the night's events had played out, knowing that she'd need to get going if she wanted to return to her haven of continued existence for the next twenty or more years, the witch slowly went around to the front of the vehicle. She bent at the knees, tried to pick up one of the struts, realised that she wouldn't be able to take it back with her unless she left her staff inside the carriage. Like someone trapped in a dream, she did precisely that – this carriage was hers, it was part of the castle, part of the inheritance that came with the curse. Leaving it behind was not an option.
With the rod, its orb dull now that she had released it, securely on the seat, she returned to the front, wrapped a hand around each wooden pole, and lifted. With only a little difficulty, she managed to turn it, and began dragging its limping form all the way back up the way she'd come. Never, not for an instant, had she imagined that leaving the castle this night would have such consequences. The ability didn't exist within her to contemplate such defeat.
For a while, she was blank, dull, drawing the carriage further up, feeling the sun growing closer to the horizon's edge, just as she had woken as it had dipped and the wind had begun to sweep through the land. But then… slowly, her natural precedence for wickedness eased back through her cold veins. Her confidence had been knocked, but she would know better for next time. One of the little mud-puppets was bound, eventually, to stand up to her. And yes, here she was, all alone, pulling her own cart like some kind of beast of burden… but…
"That wind will be back someday," she murmured, as she climbed ever higher. A razor-thin smile split her face, teeth glinting in the gradually appearing moonlight. "I will be coming back, someday…"
Laughter bubbling from her mouth, shrill and hysterical, she continued on upward, immortal, essentially undefeatable, already scheming dark schemes for the decades to come.