Little winds and waters slithered through an open window to sprinkle and cool the sill of Aqua's room. Content with sleep, she snuggled under her covers and danced in a dream, oblivious to the chilly morning of training that awaited her- and to the masked shadow that lingered by her side.
What little he felt through the gloves of his injustices was odd to him, new; skin without scars, silky-smooth hair, silent and undisturbed rest. There was work to be done on her heart- pain to be dug, anger to be planted, rage to be nurtured- all for the twin fruits of chaos and ruin. The trail of his finger across her chin lacked a certain lightness to it, and her eyes shot open.
Aqua sat up into the cold, where a draft found her unsuspecting. The merciless chills were easily fended off with a hug, but left her still uncomfortable. The open window and uninvited drizzle caught her attention. In the shadows, meanwhile, the manifestation of her plaguing thoughts did not. Aqua slipped out from under her covers and skimmed across the room toward the window, trying to avoid the floor for fear of her bare feet freezing. She hadn't remembered leaving it open, and couldn't think of why she would. Her hand knocked the drapes aside to slide the pane shut, cutting the whispers of the world from their source. The wind only bothered the castle's exterior now.
But another sound troubled her. With a hand still on the sill, she cut her breathing, trying to listen below what she would otherwise hear. Groaning stones shifted under gusts. Swirling dust, propelled by equalizing temperatures, wisped from floor to roof. Somewhere in the castle, a rodent was scavenging. There was another noise, indistinguishable- too low perhaps, as if it were the sound of something merely being where it shouldn't be, of the air it displaced.
Aqua swiveled and summoned a keyblade to her side. Tiny sparks flew to life on her other hand, ready to sling a quick spell. But no threat presented itself. Aqua waited, considering. Her room was too dark, she decided.
She startled the curtains behind her to illuminate her room in natural intervals, sending spots and holes dancing like angered souls through the room. Her floor was clear- certainly enough for her to step into the center of the room, keyblade taught at her side with a shock spell still sparking between her forefinger and thumb. The moonlight freed up the front wall in a large sweep, signaling blessed safety and ease of mind. She turned her back to it and the door it held.
The moonlight's minimal effort skirted around the rest of her room past the area of her bed, leaving a solid of black floating in the miasma of grays. But where her eyes failed her, the rest of her senses were sure. It wasn't just a sound to her anymore. The feeling of eyes upon her quickened the beat in her chest. She was prey for something lurking in the nooks of her own room. Aqua steeled herself and shook a new spell to life on her fingertips.
"light," she casted away. A small orb sprung to life at the far end of her bed, just bright enough to illuminate a foot or so around itself. Aqua sighed at her still-blooming aptitude for magic.
If that had grown in as fast as everything else, I wouldn't have this problem.
She chewed the inside of her mouth in thought, angry at her inability to effectively turn the tables on whatever phantom was with her. She could only stand in the dimness and hope it would give up its advantage.
She certainly wouldn't be giving up hers, but the impasse was terrifying. Every second she spent staring could have been right into its eyes.
"wind,"she whispered. The light scooted clumsily across floor, only moving a few feet, and failing to yield any information. Again, she could only curse.
The thought of calling for help struck her. Terra was in the same hallway as her, after all; and she doubted that they were out of Master Eraqus' detection. But then how would something get into the castle without him knowing? The obvious answer struck her disappointingly.
Aqua straightened out her back, realizing she'd been leaning over to peer.
"Alright, Terra," she mumbled. "Very funny. You can come out now."
Terra didn't answer, and she realized that- more than ever- she really wanted him to, regardless of where he was. She shifted her weight to step back, toward the door, but froze when her eyes suddenly adjusted to wake. Her light on the far end of the room was resting against an anomaly- a slight variation in the ring of light, as if the darkness had somehow intruded on it, but so slightly that it wasn't clear.
She could have been imagining it, or the spell could even have been failing. Either way, it was time to decide whether or not she would call for help. Disappointed, groggy eyes fed her cynical thoughts. She did not want to be embarrassed in front of Terra- not for being too afraid to sleep alone in the dark.
No. Calling for help was definitely not an option. She wouldn't wake anyone up unless she needed to. It was time for her to act. If she wanted to be a keyblade master, she was going to have to act like one first.
Aqua steeled herself again, reinforcing it with a fighting stance, and cleared her throat.
"Whoever you are-" She began. But her voice caught when her fears materialized. Her eyes suddenly focused on the abnormality in the light; and with them, her mind came to bear. The shadow in the light was the toe of a boot. It retracted, leaving her paralyzed.
She had to be wrong, she knew. It had to be her imagination.
"Go on…" a voice cooed from the shadows.
She shook, reeling at the fear of a real combat for her life, but failed to answer.
"What's the matter?" the voice continued. "Cat got your tongue?"
Her loss of control let the spell on her hand spark her, startling her back into the action.
"Thunder!" she shrieked.
Bristles of electricity coalesced over the intruder's form in the blackness, giving away his position. Aqua lunged with her keyblade, swiping horizontally. She knew she wasn't the best in melee, but a keyblade gave her the advantage. It was made to hit things and hurt. To her horror, it did neither. She nearly cried out in shock as the blade zipped through her sparking target like wind. The intruder vanished- an illusion.
"Too slow," the voice smirked.
She felt her legs struck from under her as something grabbed her hair. She had cut it short for a reason. An expert twirling-knee-strike freed her. Her aggressor couldn't dodge without releasing her.
She stood again and took her stance on instinct, keyblade taught at her side and free hand ready with another contact spell. Another horror had greeted her by then. The enemy had disappeared like a Shinobi, back into the shadows.
Aqua returned to the center of her room, breathing low, ears high. Dancing shadows drew her gaze around the room jerkily, but the window curtain had settled for the most part, leaving her without light. She flicked another wind spell to send it dancing again. A stray moonbeam caught the intruder near the door. He lunged.
She panicked and blocked directly, not realizing her mistake until they locked. Blade grapples were not her forte, but it wasn't the unfavorable condition that chilled her so much as the realization that her opponent was wielding a keyblade as well, and significant armor. Hers was hanging in the dresser, leaving nothing but cloth to protect her. The intruder pushed her back, taking ground. Quivering knees stopped her from responding. She couldn't push back. More importantly, she couldn't let him back her against the wall.
A roll took her away to his side, back to the window- him chasing with strikes that she parried and dodged. Her next duck/dodge/handspring sent him thumping into the window with the committed weight of his last strike, momentarily disorienting him while she retook her stance near the door.
"Thunder!" she cried out again. Fizzling tickles skipped over his body in the shadows, bothering him less than she had hoped. The intruder chuckled.
"You're learning," he cooed. "But you rely too much on evasion. It won't do you much good out in the real world."
Aqua remade her stance, lower.
"You want me to slow down for you?" she teased.
He gestured at her from the darkness, ignoring the response. "And you really shouldn't let someone like me catch you without any armor on."
She tensed uncomfortably, quips failing her as the intruder gestured her window pane open.
"It leaves you… open," he slurred.
An unnatural wind accompanied his last word to violate the room and sweep through her clothing like hands where they shouldn't be. The chill slipped under her fabric, loosing shivers and a shriek. She hopped back to her fighting stance, embarrassed and terrified.
The armored figure scoffed. "Pathetic." The dim outline of his head shook. "Let's see how much damage you can take."
Aqua couldn't have hoped to handstand out of the ensuing flurry. With inhuman suddenness and horrid silence, the Shinobi descended on her as a swarm of blows. She couldn't have hoped to dodge; but she didn't needed to.
Thinking fast, she raised her arm and channeled what magic and imagination she had into a spontaneous spell. It broadened from the palm of her hand into a glowing sphere of hexagons, like a honeycomb barrier that shut out the world.
His thousand strikes were worthless as they met on a hex-based barrier, leaving Aqua unscathed and giggling from a combat high. She had never practiced a barrier spell before, and she had only ever seen octagonal forms. Necessity, it seemed, was the mother of invention after all.
The intruder grunted in approval as he recovered his balance, but the minor victory was short lived. What damage the barrier could take was far surpassed by his next strike. His blade sundered upon her in a two-handed grip, shattering the barrier. Air blasted in around her, muffing her ears as it collapsed and threw her to her back. Another haymaker came at her face, leaving a solid block as her only option. She raised her blade and stopped his only a foot from her face.
The featureless, armored face appeared above her and Aqua, flat-on-her-back, realized her third mistake of the night, and its finality. The aggressor had her in a blade grapple again, with her on the ground and no room to maneuver. His weight shifted down, burning her biceps as she tried to resist.
His voice was a vanity in itself, vainly cooing, "See what I mean? Run out of tricks and you're finished."
Aqua grunted and strained against him, trying to shift his force to either side, or to get her feet under her without letting his weight come down on her neck. It was impossible; she was pinned. And the realization was sinking in that she was at his mercy.
"I figured you weren't really keyblade material," he mused. "Got any more tricks before I kill you?"
The panicked plea in her eyes said no. Her options had suddenly become, "die a coward" or "die fighting." The cold, steel plate above her seemed to be mocking, or salivating over her soul.
"So there's nothing to stop me from taking your life?" he mused.
In the strangeness of the respite from an assassin, she couldn't help but think it was a prompt- that he wanted her to come up with another technique and turn the tables again. Exhausted abilities and luck loomed back at her until she caught her breath.
"Fine," he finally muttered. The weight against her tripled, unbearable, seizing up her heart and forcing her elbows to the floor. It was only a matter of time before he would choke her, she knew, and there was nothing she could do to stop him. The certainty of death loomed closer as her wrists weakened, as his knees landed on either side of her and the mask came down to her eyes.
"You are sooo weak," he moaned. The disappointment oozed from him, as if he were hoping for something more, like…
Aqua thrashed and screamed with the last of her strength, buying seconds and deafening the assassin.
He only scoffed, annoyed. "Oh, you little cheater."
She screamed out the last of her air and thrashed with her legs, losing her coherency and thought. The assailant removed his weight and stepped away from her.
She had to gasp.
"THERE'S SOMEONE TRYING TO KILL ME!"
The masked figure stepped back into the moonlight, giving himself away to her eyes for the first time. His hands were covering his ears; it was the taunting gesture he wanted her to see.
"Shuuuut up," moaned from his mask.
A door slammed somewhere distant in the hall, responding to the overt terror in her shrill. She scooted herself upright against the wall and grabbed the hilt of her blade with both hands, exerting enough force to lift its tip in the Shinobi's direction in case he decided on a coup de grace. Her arms were too ruined to lift it properly.
"Fine," he mumbled. "We'll do it your way." His own keyblade responded in her direction. "Sleep."
In the next instant, tucked properly and secure, she was snuggled in her bed as before. Little winds and waters had left her, as had the frosted floor. The moonbeams had settled their dispute with the curtains, leaving only the silhouette of an armored figure resting on her sill behind the drapes. She could barely acknowledge it through cracked-open eyes.
As the door to her room burst open, she saw less of the silhouette- only the fuzzy outline of a blob behind her curtains, and then the blob rolling away and disappearing into the night. And then Terra, brushing her hair aside. She heard him mutter, "Oh. You're asleep?"
And before she could respond, it was true.
Rings, swinging, wind-whistled for the marshes on the mountain. They were targets during the day, and instruments at night. Two visitors listened in for their amusement.
"Well?" Master Xehanort grumbled.
His apprentice presented himself with a kneel. "I wouldn't call her an equal. Her friends are her strength."
Master Xehanort scoffed with a scowl toward the castle. Fingers- his own- traced the path on his face of the scar on another. "I think we all know just how valuable friends are," he muttered.
His apprentice was occupied with his own thoughts, and interjected them. "Master."
The apprentice- the Shinobi- lifted his head. "You were right about her. Her heart is… filled with light."
Master Xehanort rounded on his pupil. "I don't like the tone in your voice."
He bowed his head quickly. "I don't envy her, Master. I was just… curious."
His Master grunted. "I did not create you to be curious, Vanitas. You exist to give me the X-blade. Remember that."
Vanitas nodded, his head down. "Yes, master."
"Will she suffice if we need her?"
Again, Vanitas nodded. "We need to give her more time, too. But yes. If the pipsqueak never recovers, she'll do."
The Master nodded, grinned, smiled. "Good."