Okay, okay, DON'T KILL ME ON SIGHT! (holds Axel up as a shield)

*ahem* Before you all start destroying me with strongly-worded PM's, I just wanted to apologize for not updating in so long. Seriously, it took me twice as long to finish this time…

Axel: And why was that? (breaks free)

Me: (hides behind him again) Hey! Stop moving, Axel; you need to protect me! Ugh, well, when summer came around, I got really complacent and kinda loosened up too much…and then when college came along I had too many other things to do… Dx

But! (points finger in the air) Let it be said that I am no less interested in writing my story! In fact, I can't wait for the things that are coming up soon!

:D!

Axel: (rolls his eyes)

Okay, shout-out to Hawkrider for getting the quote right! Nice job!

"Urrgh! That guy really frosts my cookies!" –Uzuki from The World Ends With You

Okay, so I thoroughly realize that Sora and Kairi are now officially together, aaand so far nothing's happened... Well...crap's been going down; I haven't gotten to that yet! Dx

Axel: Says the crappy fan fiction writer...

Me: Silence! You lost your right to speak when you stopped being here!

Axel: You're the writer! You stopped putting me here!

Me: OOOOOOOOOOOOHHHHHH! :O (Bro90x joke)

Expect random filler in this episode. Evidently, I thought it was important to include them... .... Look, I haven't uploaded in months, so take what you can get, people!


Chapter 24: Winter's End

The stark landscape was robed in its heavy layers of frigid white. There was white above and white below, with expansive blotches of shredded cloud through which the blinding light of day could blaze. The old trees were hobbled. Though tall they seemed to bend, exhausted by their powdery load, half asleep with the bitter sorrow of their frozen confinement. There was something in the forest itself that whispered with subtle grief, its hollowness amplified by the lack of any sound or any movement that suggested some kind of life within.

Yet there was a feeling of some long lost energy, fast bound and imprisoned deep below the surface that seemed to radiate faintly in the almost-warm light of the sun...

The sound of fluttering wings was heard by no one as a tiny red bird, who had apparently taken interest in an unmoving person, flitted down to perch on its shoe. The grey footwear rested upon a magnificent patch of lush green grass which surrounded the boy's shape perfectly. It crept around his limp arms, coming to an end at the dull brown tree on which he leaned.

His head was curled down, chin tucked into his chest, the furs of his coat partially obscuring his cheeks. Many long, frayed locks of silver hair fell in messy rivers over the figure's shoulders, displaying the boy's apparent and urgent need of a hair brush.

The small bird twitched several times, flicking its tail and rotating its head in various positions to get a look at the person. It chirped, as if to say, "Your pants are going to get wet like that, kid". The bird then hopped up and down on the toe of the shoe before pecking at the material with a curious, probing orange beak.

The appendage immediately attached to the shoe responded, convulsing slightly and flexing at the ankle. The bird flapped in surprise while it tried to recover its balance, blinking its beady eyes repeatedly as it glanced back up. It chirped at him again. Cheep!

Riku stirred and breathed in deeply through his nostrils, instantly crinkling them against the frigid, biting air. This seemed to rouse him, and after a moment he gradually slid open his eyelids, having to blink them hard when they met the white glare given off by the pristine snow in the bright morning sun. He grunted softly and lifted his head by a small margin, only getting a glimpse of the crimson bird before it took flight and darted safely to a tree several meters away. Bewildered, he moved to gaze with squinting eyes at the creature.

It emitted several more odd twittering sounds, flicked its tail again, and then flitted away in a wavy flight pattern.

Now alone in the quiet morning, and not feeling at all rushed, Riku stretched and yawned, rubbing away the random moisture in his eyes that resulted from a surprisingly good sleep. He stood up slowly while combing his fingers through his cold, matted hair, and looked up. Apparently the tree had decided to rudely drop some its snow on his head at some point.

Wait...why had he been sleeping outside?

Only after this realization did he finally remember, in a sudden burst of mnemonics, all that had happened the previous night, and his hand subconsciously flew to his chest. Underneath the partially unzipped coat he noticed a good sized burn hole in his black shirt where he had injected himself with fire. The underlying skin felt perfect and completely untouched, and...

Riku quickly pulled his left arm from its sleeve.

To his immense relief, the appendage seemed to be fine. Way more than just fine, actually; he would have described this as nothing less than a miraculous recovery. The bright blue venom that had sought to freeze his very blood must have been cleansed by his dark flame, and the arm once again radiated a healthy complexion. The bite mark remained scabbed over for now, but aside from that all was normal.

Surprised, Riku just stood like a statue, pupils slowly flicking around as if he were waiting for something. I don't...feel any different...he thought. Searching inside, he probed around for that dreaded voice...but there was no response.

"...Nothing..." he said faintly.

Was he unable to take control, even though I was weak? he wondered.

"His voice..." Riku murmured unsteadily. "Always with that voice..."

He closed his eyes, exhaling.

"... Well…anyway..." Riku cleared his mind, lowering his arm as he stepped forward to survey the wintry forest. He scanned from side to side, noting dense woods and distant mountains. "How will I find them...in a world like this?"

After a few moments, he eventually decided to get moving, stepping into the snow in the same direction the bird had taken with the hopes of finding his friends soon. An odd thought hovered in the back of his head, one that left a particular feeling in his gut: the idea that Ansem might have just saved his life.


The brilliant light of the morning brought clarity to the frost-bitten forest, casting a faint highlight on the face of every ashen grey tree. The many tall, sometimes naked structures seemed to doze as almost a dozen crunching sets of feet broke the crusted upper layer of the snow. Sora felt as if he were walking and breathing in a silent painting, the crisp air funneling through his nostrils, a feeling of contentment at his shoulder. Walking near to him were the weary figures of Donald, Goofy, Roxas and Kairi, all of whom hadn't eaten more than a jelly-lathered biscuit from Mrs. Beaver's pouch since landing here. The night was gone and the midnight trek had drained them, but the white sunlight set the snow ablaze like glittering diamonds and brought a subtle vigor to Sora's thoughts.

He wondered briefly on the Prophesy spoken of by the Beavers: When Adam's flesh and Adam's bone, sits in Care Paravel in throne, the evil time will be over and done... They had explained that the prophesy required four humans, two of each gender, that were supposedly meant to bring about the end of the hundred-year winter in Narnia.

Despite how cool Sora thought it would be to fulfill that prophesy, well, there simply wasn't enough time to reign as a king right now. Honestly, the thought made him heavy, and he sincerely hoped the responsibility fell onto the Pevensie children. He had enough on his plate already.

Up a head was Skyra, who walked near to Susan, and a short distance in front of them were the Beavers, waddling on their hind legs to scan ahead of the group. Perched serenely on Skyra's shoulder was Ardeo, who filled the air with calm, wandering notes. The dragon shimmered as he sang, calling out only jumbles of oddly-placed vocals that never formed a complete song, until he came across a tune that he liked and continued to add more to it. His voice transcended octaves smoothly, creating a mysterious, high-and -low quality that made the tranquil morning even more inviting to conversation.

Skyra appeared to be just fine walking along quietly, eyes gazing forward, until she realized that Susan had been staring at her on-and-off for the last ten minutes. Intrigued, she turned her head to glance at the other girl.

"Oh, sorry..." breathed Susan quickly, and having been discovered, flicked her eyes away. She put on a half-smile and gave Skyra a highly inquisitive look. "It's just... I can't seem to get over your hair - all of you, actually."

The two girls shot a glance at the boys behind them. Skyra fingered a few rebellious strands of hair that were always the first to break free from her ponytail, and gave a snicker.

"I mean, I'm sure it might be normal where you come from, but I don't think I've ever seen anything quite like it." The eldest sister used a somewhat light tone so as not to be offensive, but it was evident that she was searching very hard for an explanation to such outlandish hair-do's.

Her bewilderment made Skyra laugh a little. "Runs in the family, believe it or not," she offered.

Unbeknownst to the others, she turned away with an expression of confusion, as if her own words were strange to her, and set her jaw tighter. Susan, however, was too busy exploding over the possibility of a human gene for pink-streaked hair to even notice.

"Anyway," recovered Skyra, jerking her head to indicate Sora and Roxas, "it's those one's that have the ridiculous hair."

"How do they get it to be so spiky?" laughed Susan.

"Honestly, the world may never know," scoffed the other girl.

Their breath fogged as they laughed quietly.

"And all different colors, too," mused Susan. "You don't all seem to be related at all..."

This brought a smile to Skyra's face. One that was larger but still genuine. "Related to Sora?!" Ardeo cried out, echoing her humor. "I couldn't imagine it..." A moment later she spoke up again. "... But if I was, would I still be allowed to call him an idiot?"

"I think so," chuckled Susan, looking like she could say similar things of her brothers. "Do you do that often?"

"I suppose..." answered Skyra. "I called Sora a pansy once, and an idiot...among other things..."

Susan laughed. "Anyway, brothers and sisters always do that to each other, kind of like how you make fun of your friend Sora."

Skyra considered the information and hummed thoughtfully. "Is...that what siblings are supposed to do?"

The girl glance up in question. "Well, they pretty much all do, don't you think...?" Susan drifted, looking somewhat hesitant but mostly astounded by the other teen's lack of knowledge on the subject. Her crystal eyes were sharp, analytic.

Skyra turned her gaze back to the path ahead. Silent, snow-laden trees passed, and she shrugged.

"I...suppose I wouldn't know," she answered simply.

"Ah, no brothers or sisters, then?" The question was honest and plain enough.

Skyra shook her head.

"Hmm. Well, they can be quite the handful sometimes," commented Susan pointedly. She gazed forward, as if the very landscape was proof enough of her statement. Behind her, Peter rolled his eyes.

The other girl hummed in acknowledgement and slight humor. "You're stuck with them," Skyra affirmed. As she did so her countenance fell slightly, chocolate eyes shifting into a deeper, more contemplative stare. "... But, at least you have them, right?"

Her softer tone was ignored by the babble of conversation behind them, but Susan heard it, and her eyes met the brilliant snow as well. She gave a quick, humorless breath of a laugh - a hollow whispered grunt. Bitterness on her lips, she said, "Hardly."

There was a glance shared between her, Peter, and Lucy. Skyra caught it with a question in her eyes, but then seemed to understand. "Right. Your brother..."

Peter nodded once, faintly. "Edmund, yes."

Lucy, whose dark coat dragged a little as she walked, looked up at her brother. "Do you think he's alright?" she inquired, a speck of dullness clouding her round eyes.

Peter couldn't help but look straight down at her, as if drawn there somehow. The girl's question caused Susan to turn her head completely around for a short but tangibly heavy moment, and in that span of silence Peter's lips stretched into a grim line that, while tender and full, still did not entirely qualify as a smile. He answered, with a breath of air from his nose, "I hope so, Lucy."

Their discordant, crunching footfalls continued to fill the cold tranquility, and Susan and Skyra both rotated their heads to face slowly forward once again.

A sad situation, thought Skyra. ...Even family members can betray each other.

She thought to ask why, but seeing as the three were already troubled, she decided against it. Perhaps it was some quarrel that had caused the dissension. But the more she thought on it the more she felt something akin to anger roiling up inside her. It shouldn't matter, snapped a voice inside her, like some lost memory. It should never matter.

There was a new quality of absentminded heaviness in her step, arms hanging in a somewhat less animated way, as one who is not entirely there would walk. Her eyes fell on the snow with a glare hot enough to melt it.

...Nothing excuses a betrayal.

It was only moments later that a throaty sort of hum pierced her increasingly gloomy thoughts, and looking up she saw that it was Ardeo, who had long since ceased uttering his song. His tiny claws held her shoulder firmly, tail swishing and coiling like a tentative snake. She saw his tiny glittering scales and his imploring, almost bruised-looking eyes.

Inwardly she sighed. Then reached over to rub his neck.

The diminutive reptile let out a quietly warbling purr, facing the ground with his forehead pressed into her jaw bone. The gentle rocking motion made by Skyra's hand seemed to soothe him.

The girl looked ahead once more, and then down suddenly, as if pondering an idea. Taking Ardeo in her hand, she mentally told him to hold on a second and then glanced back at Lucy.

"Hey Lucy," she said. The young girl looked up at her with eyes that were unafraid.

Skyra thrust out her hand towards her, fingers gripped around the tiny Ardeo. He hung in her grasp, wings tucked in and not resisting. "Do you like dragons?"

Lucy's face seemed to light up at the creature before her and she came to a halt, one eyebrow wiggling slightly. The others stopped walking along with her as well.

"... Will...will he bite?" she asked tentatively, a grin already forming on her face as she brought a cold hand closer to Ardeo.

"Only in self-defense." Skyra gazed at them steadily. Play with her, will you? she told Ardeo.

He craned his neck back to glance at Skyra, then faced Lucy and gave an endearing cry, violet eyes closing briefly. Lucy watched as he climbed nimbly out of Skyra's hand and onto her arm. He paused to let her stroke his tiny head, and then scampered up and started swatting at her hair with an amused chitter.

Lucy giggled as the dragon continued to poke her and move about playfully from shoulder to shoulder, his antics appearing to brighten her up considerably.

"... I bet Susan has been dying to comment on that," chuckled Peter suddenly.

"Oh, shut it," she snapped good-naturedly in return. "It's not any less possible that the rest of this place." Susan regarded Skyra as they continued trudging through the near-perfect snow. "You know, I really think we should tell you that we're not from around here," she said.

Skyra waved her eyebrow. "Neither are we."

The girl looked to her with new interest, perhaps a flare of shock. "Really? Did...you come through a wardrobe as well?"

Skyra thought back to the massive piece of furniture that had served as the gate to this world. "... Something like that," she said.

"So then you must agree!" the girl spoke with an energetic wave of her arm. "How ridiculous this all is...! The talking animals, everything. We're walking around inside a wardrobe!"

Skyra got the odd impression that the girl was venting. Her eyes scanned the growing patches of sun-stained white hot snow, then she responded a-matter-of-factly, "I've seen crazier."

"Heehee… Give it up, Susan," giggled Lucy from behind. "'Illogical' doesn't always mean 'impossible'."

Ardeo warbled in delight, spitting a thin wisp of flame into the air as if to agree. Susan glanced back at the smug girl, and with a half-smile twist of her lip turned back and muttered, "Unfortunately."

The others chuckled quietly. Skrt, skrt, went their crunching footsteps, a comforting sound that was quite suddenly broken by a coarse reproach from up ahead.

"Oi! Get over 'ere you stragglers!" shouted Mr. Beaver. "We're at the Stone Bridge already; come on!"

The beaver's demands elicited both chuckles and groans from the humans. Skyra lifted her eyebrow at the two chestnut-colored mammals that now stood in bright contrast past the reach of the forest, where the unhindered sunlight spread like white fire over the snow.

"You'd think with such short legs they wouldn't be able to walk so fast..." commented Susan.

"And we've been going all night..." moaned Lucy. Ardeo yawned beside her, moving to hunker down between her warm neck and the inside of her furred collar.

Skyra glanced over her shoulder to see what the others were doing. Strangely enough, the first thing she saw was Sora on his knees in the snow, evidently in serious pain. Some of the others were chuckling or otherwise making an effort to restrain themselves from doing so, and Donald could be seen marching away from the afflicted Sora. Skyra paused and continued to observe the scene.

"Hmph!" huffed the duck as he trudged by, agitated and with blood vessels pulsing in his skull. "I'll show him who's afraid of wolves...!"

Skyra watched as Donald passed, mumbling in scathing words all manner of belligerent remarks. She merely raised an eyebrow in amusement, and a moment later walked after him with quiet, considering steps. She, along with the others, soon emerged beyond the trees to find that they now stood upon a massive rock formation that reached narrowly into the sky from the sloping ground below.

The darkly cold, rough stone did, indeed, resemble a bridge as it adjoined the two tree-capped ridges, and to either side provided a spectacular view of the miles of thick wood that thrived on seemingly every inch of Narnia.

"Unhhh... Jeez, Donald, did you really have to kick my shin?" groaned Sora. He bent over to massage the mortal wound.

"Hmph! You got what you deserved," replied Donald, arms crossed.

"Ahyuck," laughed Goofy. "You really shouldn't a' teased him for it, Sora..."

"Haha...yeah." Sora stood erect once again, panning his eyes to take in the view. He absorbed the painted white landscape with an expression of impressed wonderment, and then, unbeknownst to the others, seemed to shrink away, as if daunted.

"Now," announced Mr. Beaver, "Aslan's camp is just near the Stone Table, just across the frozen river."

Peter glanced down at him. "River?"

"Oh, the river's been frozen solid for over a hundred years," informed Mrs. Beaver sweetly.

"Wow..." murmured Kairi, lifting her face to allow the sun to better warm her pale face. It was no camp fire, but it took the edge off her rosy cheeks.

The oldest brother squinted longingly into the distance. "It's so far..."

"It's the world, darling," smiled Mrs. Beaver. "Did you expect it to be small?"

Susan sent Peter a wry glance. "Smaller," she remarked.

Sora hugged himself, chilly despite the unabated winter sun. Next to him, Goofy brought his index finger to his chin and stared, head tilted to the ground, in thought. "Hmmm... Makes ya wonder how we're gonna find Riku in all this," he said aloud.

Kairi kneaded her hand and flattened her lips in response. Both Donald and Sora simultaneously deflated, the former letting out a somber, "Ohhhhhhh..." It only made sense to Sora, seeing as Donald's last words to Riku were snarls of condemnation.

Instantly Goofy recomposed himself, glancing quickly around at the effect he had created in them. "Aww, hey now - don't listen ta me you guys..." He moved to stand in front of them with concern clearly written all over his face. "I shoulda known better'n to say that... I'm sorry," he pleaded.

Donald sniffed, partially from the cold weather, and gazed up at him.

"... It's okay," pardoned Sora, eyes closing heavily. His mood drew in Kairi's attention as well. She smiled grimly, taking his arm and leaning onto his shoulder. This appeared to catch the boy somewhat off guard.

"... Sora, you believe we'll find him, right?" she prodded. There was a tender patience in her tone that made her smile seem a tiny bit lighter.

Sora looked down in thought at the question, gazing a bit to the side as he brought a hand up to scratch his head. "Well..." he took a moment to sigh. "Yeah, I guess I do," he admitted.

"Well, good." Kairi released a pent up breath and let go of him, eyes growing a little brighter. "Because, if you didn't... Haha... Anyway, just...try not to worry too much. We'll find him."

Sora tilted his head slightly, realization dawning on him. In his slight obsession over Riku's absence, he was causing her to worry about himself as well. Her last statement now seemed both practical and ironic at the same time.

"Ahyuck!" exclaimed Goofy spiritedly. "That's right, Sora. We'll find him no matter what!

"Yeah!" affirmed Donald with his hand balled into fists. "Forget the mission! We're not going anywhere until I've whacked 'im upside the head a few times for getting separated! I don't care if we have to stay here for weeks!"

Sora cracked a smile at that. A short breathing chuckle escaped his throat.

Roxas, who had so far watched quietly, smirked at Sora. "Sora," he said, "I don't make promises often, but even I could tell you it's going to be alright."

"Ugh...Hahaha..." Sora blinked and then smiled at everyone appreciatively. "Alright, I get it. I know, I'm just worried is all...Thanks, everyone."

Kairi smiled. She was about to reach over and give Sora a hug, but Goofy beat her to it. The knight was so tall that he seemed able to lift the boy and swing him around in circles with little to no effort at all, and as he did so, laughed and said, "Ahyuck-hyuck! That's what friends are for, right, Sora?"

"Waaah! G-Goofy! Put me down already!"

Everyone laughed as Goofy apologized and plopped Sora back onto the snow, the latter looking rather embarrassed at having been jolted around so suddenly.

"Hmph... What a strange lot you are," chuckled Mr. Beaver with veiled affection. Sora turned and then remembered that they had of course been watching. Mrs. Beaver smiled, touched from their little display. There was an awkward exchange of friendly looks from the Pevensies.

Peter leveled his gaze at Sora. "If it helps," he said, "I think you'll find your friend, too."

"Oh! Um, thanks," smiled Sora while rubbing the back of his head. "And hey, we can help you guys find your brother, too!"

This put a wide smile on Lucy's face. "Thanks, Sora," she said quietly. "You're all really nice..."

Sora couldn't help but smile at that. He was happy that she was at least feeling better from the heartless attack last night. Kairi giggled in response.

"Well now..." said Mrs. Beaver airily, "we'd best get moving if we want to get to Aslan's camp."

"Right! So is there anything else you'd like to get off your chest, Sora, while we're at it?" Mr. Beaver's mocking tone made Sora snort indignantly. As he crossed his arms and gave the mammal a cynical look, Mr. Beaver shifted his gaze over to Roxas.

"Excuse me," he began, "but does your friend over there do that often?"

"Huh...?" Sora turned to his right. "Oh-"

He and the others all set their attention on Roxas, who looked surprised at the fact that he had suddenly begun to glow. Bright blue eyes flicked about inquisitively; the Nobody twisted slightly to look himself over, calming down after a moment.

"Time to go, huh?"

Roxas let out a breath and nodded at Sora. "Yeah. To be honest, I was starting to wonder when I'd have to go back..." He smiled a little and shrugged. "Oh well."

"See you later, Roxas!" exclaimed Donald in farewell. Goofy grinned and waved, "Come back soon, Roxas! Ahyuck!"

Roxas grunted and smiled at them, and then, remembering that Kairi was also there, glanced at her briefly.

"Wait, what's going on?" questioned Susan, sounding concerned.

"...And why are you all saying goodbye?" added Peter. They all looked quite bewildered.

Skyra glanced their way with arms crossed. "You'll see," she replied simply.

The light surrounding Roxas intensified, and the Pevensies and the Beavers paced slowly backwards. Soon Roxas was completely shrouded in a luminous glow that caused the snow to twinkle beneath him. Finally, when he could no longer be seen at all, the light dispersed into a swarm of bright orbs that merged back with Sora, and Roxas was gone.

Sora squirmed slightly at the strange sensation, feeling the pendant click somewhere inside his pocket. "Hah... It always feels funny when he goes back inside me," he commented aloud. He turned to look at the company in waiting, and their looks of utter shock and inability to conceive what had just happened almost made him burst out in embarrassed laughter. He settled for an apologetic, toothy grin.

The staring contest went on for a while more, and after some numb questions and a few ill-fated attempts at an explanation, the group of outsiders eventually went with the "It's complicated," approach. Their new friends tried their best to understand the bit about Roxas being a part of Sora, and then decided that they didn't want to know the rest, and so they left it at that.

Hopefully, thought Sora, this would not damage what trust they had built with the Beavers already. Especially after that little display of humanity a few moments ago... Ah well.

Speaking of which, Mr. Beaver was exasperated. After finally thinking that he'd found two Sons of Adam and two Daughters of Eve, (plus several extra), he now had to adjust to having only two incomplete sets of three. Needless to say, he was through with thinking about the whole mess, and with Mrs. Beaver's consolement, decided that he would simply reserve judgment until they reached the mysterious Aslan's camp.

They offered each other a few ill at ease laughs, and then decided to be on their way. As they continued to cross the natural bridge, Roxas appeared again in Sora's thoughts.

Hm... Well that went surprisingly well, he remarked.

Yeah... I don't think they're ever going to get over this, though...

Roxas made a mental "sound" of agreement. Sora, I'm still not sure if we'll ever get over this... He sighed. Funny, though, it seems like that pendant's been keeping me out for longer periods of time.

Yeah. You stayed out for the whole night, didn't you? Sora thought about the possible implications. Somehow the whole dilemma was so weird and abstract that he found he didn't really know what to do with it.

Roxas hummed. I wonder if it's okay... Not that I'm complaining, of course.

Haha, laughed Sora. Well at least you get to rest: I still have to walk us the rest of the way! The Keybearer moaned at the thought of still more endless, foot-numbing, trudging and climbing through blinding snow. He was barely putting up with the steps he was taking now.

Huh. Y'know, for once I can say that I wouldn't want to be you right now...

Roxas' counterpart took it as a good sign, and decided that it entitled him to complain the rest of the way. Sora chuckled mentally. After a brief moment, Roxas spoke up again.

Sora...he said, now that I'm back in here, there's something I wanted to talk to you about.

Hm? What is it, Roxas?

It's about last night... Roxas paused a moment to compose his thoughts. Did you see the way those heartless acted? They did more than just coordinate, they...predicted.

Hmm...They did seem a lot tougher that the usual ones...

No, they weren't just 'tougher', Sora. The Nobody fought for the right words. It...it was more than that. I felt like they could read me like a book. I mean, prediction requires abstract thought, like probability and patterns.

Sora received a flutter of anxiety from Roxas that mixed with forebodings of his own.

Those things weren't heartless, he concluded, at least not normal ones...

For a collection of moments their thoughtspace was quiet as both Sora and Roxas pondered the incident separately.

... And Sora?

Yes?

Does Kairi talk to Namine?"


Standing alone in the morning light was a figure unknown. Havok studied the man's appearance from amongst the snow-glazed branches of a pale tree. Blue eyes, decorative getup, he thought. Probably a narcissist. The matrix of fingerlike twigs effectively added themselves to the needles of a nearby fir in order to provide a natural barrier behind which the assassin could conceal himself. For a moment more he considered the person's rich crimson coat and silent stature, and then, with a shiver, slipped between the fruitless boughs and descended down to the snow.

He sank deep into a mound of white upon landing, the resulting "pffft" sound causing the mysterious man to glance up from the book he had lost himself in. Havok arose from his crouching position, shook a bit of snow from his black hair, and started towards the stranger.

"So, I take it you're the one he said I'd meet?" The question was lightly spoken, but the assassin was never one to forsake caution.

Chuckling, the man in red and black took in his outward appearance before returning his attention to the leather-bound. At first, Havok thought the man wasn't going to respond, but after a moment he answered calmly with, "Well, it's not much of a meeting if we're never really going to see each other again, don't you think?"

Somehow the question seemed edged with a superior attitude that would have annoyed anyone.

Oh, I'd love to tell you exactly what I think...quipped Havok to himself. Swallowing his distaste, Havok let out a small breath while thinking of something different to say in the silence.

"Sooo... You like books?" Beautiful.

The person before him smirked. "Loveless is far more than just a book," he said, enthusiasm backing his words.

Havok sighed. I'm gonna regret saying that, aren't I?

"In it," he continued, "three friends set out to discover the Gift of the Goddess. During battle, one is taken Prisoner by the enemy. The Wanderer leaves, and the remaining one becomes a Hero..." The stranger lowered his book with scarlet gloves, finally setting his gaze on Havok for any extended period of time. "Which of the three might you be most like, I wonder?"

Oh, so now you're interested in me. Havok was starting to feel his eccentricity detector overloading, but he thought about the question anyway.

"Hmph... Eh, wouldn't really call myself a hero." He gazed at the snow for a second, deciding to humor the man. "Wanderer, maybe." He shrugged offhandedly.

The man in the red trench coat smiled slightly and turned to a previous page in the book. "'Ripples form over the water's surface," he quoted elegantly; "'The wandering soul knows no rest...'"

Havok furrowed his eyebrows, a slightly unsettled frown appearing. "I see... So you wax poetic and psychic."

The man let the witty remark slide, but answered anyway. "Loveless is a great piece of literature to study. Although the world knows it to be an unfinished work, it has been completed in me. I've already found what I was looking for."

"Really?" Havok lowered an eyebrow in curiosity. It must have been very important, whatever it was. "So, what do you do now?"

"Protect it." The man calmly closed his cream-colored book, storing it amongst the black clothing he donned beneath his trench coat. The movement revealed a decorative sword attached to his belt. "Soon it will be my time to return to the Planet: I feel it is in danger. However, I lack a proper vessel to take me there."

Havok crossed his arms, breath crystallizing before him. "Uh-huh... Then, that must be why..."

"Why I struck a deal with the man you work for, yes." The man sighed irritably. "Though he seems to enjoy taking his time getting here."

The assassin hummed, deep contemplation following his trailing words. "Yeah, he...likes to do that, sometimes..." Havok wondered if he ought to comment more on his employer, but it was at that very moment that an umbral portal swirled into existence nearby. His deep cobalt eyes flicked to the spot.

"Speak of the devil..." commented the other man coolly as Xemnas appeared through the shadowy vortex.

The Nobody only acknowledged him with a glance, and then said, "You are both on time. Good."

"Yup, unlike someone," smirked Havok, suddenly nonchalant. He caught the curious glance of the stranger standing in front of him, but the man in red said nothing.

Xemnas, however, completely ignored Havok's previous comment. "If you two are not already acquainted, I believe introductions are in order. Havok," Xemnas gestured towards the new person, "this is Genesis Rhapsodos. Genesis, this is Havok. No need to get too comfortable as you will not likely see much of each other after this point."

"Indeed," smiled Genesis knowingly. "I assume all of our arrangements are in order?"

"Yes, of course. I shall transport you to your home world shortly after, however, I will have to accompany you there due to the dangers of the Dark Corridor. Singular passage is not recommended, without the proper protection." Xemnas turned to gaze at a few distant mountains, his side now facing the others. "Now then, what do you have to report?"

"Well," chuckled Havok humorously, "they went after some beavers and a group of kids, just like you said. Oh - and, uh..."

"Yes?"

"Well..." the assassin ruffled his raven colored hair. "Would you believe me if I said that another person randomly appeared there with them? His hair was just as crazy as that Sora kid's, 'cept it was blonde..."

It was at these words that Xemnas appeared to almost stop. With a sudden, particular look in his eyes he gazed down in consideration, and as a tiny smile crept onto his face, turned his sights back up on Havok. "Is that everything? Any observation may be valuable, no matter how small."

The younger man snickered and shrugged lightly. "Well, if you wanna get into specifics, I think the strange, tall one had a few burn marks on him. Especially the one on his right hand. Looked like a doozy..."

"I see..." Genesis was next to receiving attention from Xemnas. "Then I am correct in inferring that your assignment was successful?"

Genesis nodded, bored. "How could it have been any other way; it was so easy. I lead the kids to the dam, and made sure the one in the castle found that object." He waited a moment before adding, "He confronted the Witch, and the only other thing I noticed was that he appeared to hesitate before using his magic during battle."

Xemnas responded with nothing but silence, at first, as if retreating to an inner state of private contemplation. Havok wondered if any of that had meant anything to him.

"Interesting... Very well, then. Be at the river within the hour, at the place I designated earlier." Xemnas spoke with brisk authority, fully expectant of their obedience.

"Right," said Havok. "I'll go get my best men. They're camped not far from-"

"-No."

Havok stared at Xemnas, surprised at being cut off. He stood with his head turned towards his shoulder, body poised as if to walk away, and watched the silver-haired man approach slowly.

"I only want you there," said Xemnas. "I'll have very specific instructions for you to follow..."

"Oh-kay..." Havok followed the man's movements closely, head rotating on its axis as he passed right in front of him. However, he couldn't keep tracking him because the second Xemnas stepped out of the way, Havok saw something that was not there before and he froze, gasped quietly with stunned eyes grown wide.

There, shooting like smoke from Genesis' back, was a single jet black wing - stretched out gracefully from his left shoulder blade. Double-jointed and impossible, the long, slender wing held a regal array of neatly rowed feathers and appeared capable of folding in on itself twice. Genesis smiled and fixed him with a sharp, steady look, and then, like some half-angel, took off and sailed through the cold winter sky - a trail of black feathers falling beautifully to the earth behind him.

Havok watched for what felt like the longest of moments, until Genesis was merely a dot on the horizon. He was awoken suddenly when a hand pressed itself down onto his shoulder and he blinked, now tense. The hand's grip was strong and possessive, almost painful. It made him want to squirm.

"Now," breathed Xemnas, close behind him, "For the sake of satisfying my curiosity...tell me how you got that scar, Havok."

Whatever thoughts that were able to form in such shock were sent spiraling through his head. Never before had Havok felt so uneasy, alone, with someone else.


A little over an hour's worth of walking brought the travelers far past the Stone Bridge as the sun reached its peak in the sky. Skyra was now at the rear of the group, the beavers walked ahead as always, and Susan was saying things like, "You fight monsters with a giant key? That's not very practical."

They were roving through a wide-open plain, an expansive stretch of snow that made Sora feel both uncomfortable because they were exposed, and also somewhat eased because he could likewise spot possible threats from a mile away. He was currently trying to keep a vigilant eye on their surroundings, but the glare was killing his facial muscles and Kairi was shivering right next to him. And try as he might, there was no way Sora could keep his attention off of her.

"Are you cold?" he asked, offering his arm with a concerned smile. Kairi giggled as he placed it over her shoulder, hooking her body closer to his.

"A little," she admitted, a shade of pain crossing her eyes. "It's really just my feet, though. I can't even feel them anymore..."

Sora's eyes bored into her face, his eyebrows now pressed together. He let out a worried breath before speaking. "Hey, Donald, could you cast that heat spell on Kairi? I think you've been using it long enough, now."

"Hey, I'm the one who's freezing out here with bare feet!" retorted the duck. "Why don't you cast the spell?" Donald proceeded to "humph" and stick his beak skyward.

"Well I don't want to set her on fire!" cried Sora. "Come on, Donald, I can't control the magic that well..."

Donald would have protested and probably started a full-fledged argument, but one glance at Kairi's face was enough to cow him into hesitant silence. The princess did look cold...

"...Ah, phooey..." he eventually sighed. The magician flicked his staff and said, "Alright, alright. You need it more, Kairi..."

A wave of heat flooded Kairi with a warm glow. She hugged her body and then seemed to relax with a cute giggle. "Thanks, Donald," she said earnestly.

"Yeah, yeah, don't mention it." Donald waved his hand halfheartedly before falling in step next to the now toasty Kairi."

Mr. Beaver's impatience rained down on them from afar. "Come on, humans," he called, "while we're still young!"

Peter, who was treading alongside Lucy, said, "If he tells me to hurry up one more time, I'm going to turn him into a big, fluffy hat." He stooped down and had his little sister climb onto his back. She giggled.

Sora and Kairi chuckled. Donald made a sound of agreement.

"HURRY UP!" demanded Mr. Beaver.

"He is getting kind of bossy..." commented Lucy drily.

It was just then that a new sound flashed to life within the empty silence they had grown used to. Sora was just about to sigh with fatigue when he heard it chime, tinkling silver notes in a bitterly cold world. Bells.

...Bells?

In less than a second, the others heard it, too. Skyra turned first. Sora barely had the opportunity to before Mr. Beaver suddenly screamed, "It's the Witch!" Alarms went off in his head. There was a moment of stunned confusion, and then a startled rush as bodies moved around him and they were racing like madmen. Sora recalled a brief image of a sleigh drawn by reindeer.

Does the Witch drive a sleigh? Sora thought. What does she look like? Then: Need to get Kairi out of here!

"Run!" shouted Peter, dragging Lucy with him.

"Waa-a-ak!" cried Donald.

Everyone was in a mad dash for the tree line ahead. The bells rang clearly even above the rush of snow, the crash of galloping hooves roaring a good distance behind them but closing in fast. Sora tore through the snow with all his strength, trying to keep up with the Pevensies and the agile Skyra.

Faster! he pushed himself. His heart was pounding as he slammed each foot harder, hearing the snow crunch and splatter. It got inside his shoes, but he didn't care. The others made sounds of huffing and urgency. The bells were still there.

It was a race. It was all a matter of them getting to cover first. They were weighed down by their heavy coats, but the trees were only meters away...

Come on... thought Sora. Come on...!

Finally, they approached the line of forest. Sora's chest was heaving with burning lungs by the time they crossed over into the more shaded area. The Beavers lead them further in, towards a mound in the snow behind which Sora found was a little alcove. They piled into the sheltered space - pressed up against frigid dark rock - breath rushing.

Sora was crushed behind Goofy, which made it hard to see. He was still squeezing Kairi's hand. Donald and Lucy were wheezing the hardest; somebody amongst them warned everyone with a quiet "Shhh...!"

Someone approached.

Sora could not see, but he was able to hear the ominous footfalls making their way closer, slowly closer, until they finally came to rest above his head. Stiff hands covered mouths. Hearts thudded with anticipation.

There, out of Sora's view, was a shadow stretching over the powdery white snow. It paused - waited for so long - searching...

Sora began to wonder what the Witch was like. How vicious was she? Maybe she was green and wore dark robes, like Maleficent. If the two were anything alike, Sora knew he'd never want to be anywhere near her. His chest ached with his throbbing heart and the sudden instinct to hold his breath.

Seconds passed like days, and then, finally... Footsteps.

They were leaving.

Sora heard the crunch and groan of pressed snow as each step brought their hunter farther and farther away... Until all was silent. Some of them were finally able to breathe. Hushed, Lucy murmured, "Maybe she's gone..."

The Pevensies all shifted slightly. "I suppose I'll go and have a look," said Peter with a nervous sigh.

Donald nodded in a vigorous, jittery fashion, and said, "Okay...!"

"No," contended Mr. Beaver, stopping him. "You're no good to Narnia dead."

"Neither are you, Beaver," plead his wife in quiet distress.

Mr. Beaver smiled. "Thanks, dear," he nodded softly before climbing out to investigate.

The alcove grew silent in his absence. For many long moments, the only thing they could see was the plot of snow before them, framed in black rock (except for Sora, who saw only the back of Goofy's shirt). The tall fellow had a bit of a hard time hunching down low enough to sit inside. Suffice it to say, their hiding spot was extremely crowded. Even still, they waited.

And waited.

And then a dark shape popped into view, effectively causing everyone to jump and making Lucy choke out a startled, "Ahh!"

"Jeez, Mr. Beaver!" hissed Sora, but the mammal ignored him.

"Come out!" goaded the beaver, looking like he couldn't possibly be more ecstatic. "I hope you've all been good, 'cause there's someone here to see ya!"

Though curious, the fugitives in hiding gradually emerged from the little cave and followed Mr. Beaver up a small hill. There, regarding their approach with a broad smile and an even broader waistline, was someone most of them thought they would never see. Most of them gasped.

"Santa!" exclaimed Donald and Goofy simultaneously

"Oh. My. Gosh," blurted Kairi, screeching to a halt. She turned give Sora the most wide-eyed look he'd ever seen.

He shot a glance at her and laughed.

"... Merry Christmas, sir," grinned Lucy as they neared.

The man nodded warmly down at her. "It certainly is, Lucy..." he agreed, "...since you have arrived."

Susan was exasperated, much to no-one's surprise. "Look," she breathed with a flicker of weariness, "I've put up with a lot since we got here, but this..." She gestured towards the large man in dark red. Peter answered her with a gesture, like, "I don't understand it any more than you do".

Skyra was handling it only slightly better than they were. "This can't be happening..." she muttered with her hand over her forehead.

"Hahaha! Hey there, Santa," chuckled Sora with a wave and a toothy grin. he then remarked,"You look a lot different than you did in Christmas Town."

"Hello again, Sora," nodded Santa in return. "Yes, things do tend to change from world to world, as I'm sure you are well aware."

Lucy gaped up at Sora. "You've met Father Christmas before?" she uttered in amazement. Sora only grinned and cradled his hands around the back of his head coolly.

"We thought you were the Witch," stated Peter.

Father Christmas nodded before glancing backwards at the sleigh resting behind him. "Yes, sorry about that," he apologized. "But, in my defense, I have been driving one of these longer than the Witch."

"I thought there was no Christmas in Narnia," queried Susan.

"Not for a long time," replied the man. "But the hope you have brought, your Majesties, is finally starting to weaken the Witch's power. Still, I dare say you could do with these!"

Everyone watched as Santa lumbered over towards his sleigh and began to rummage through the bloated sack which took up an entire compartment. He removed a smaller bag and walked back towards them.

"Presents!" cheered Lucy. Ardeo cried out alongside her and did several excited circles on her shoulder before suddenly taking off towards Santa. The dragon gave a musical warble as he swooped in front of the man's jolly face; Santa Clause held up a gentle hand for him to perch on and chortled deeply.

"Why, hello there, Ardeo," said Santa pleasantly. "Have you been behaving like a good little dragon?" The reptile in question nodded and flared his wings with another harmonious cry. Santa laughed. "Of course you have. Don't worry - I have something special here just for you." Out of his pocket, the man produced a tiny object wrapped in a protective sheath. He removed what was inside and handed it to Ardeo, who snapped it into his mouth and flew back to Lucy with an excited squeal.

"Chicken liver," remarked Santa with a smile. "They always gobble it right up..."

Ardeo called out happily while ripping apart the tasty morsel. Lucy giggled. "Now then...The juice of the fire flower," explained Father Christmas as he held out a cordial of red fluid to Lucy. "One drop will cure any injury. And though I hope you never have to use it..." He handed her a dagger.

"Thank you, sir," said Lucy quietly, handling the object with care. "But I think...I could be brave enough."

"I'm sure you could," commented Santa gravely. "But battles are ugly affairs".

Sora nodded in agreement.

Father Christmas turned to Susan next. "Susan," he addressed, "trust in this bow, and it will not easily miss." He provided from his sack an ornate ivory bow and a matching quiver full of arrows.

She took them, gazing upon their colors, and remarked, "What happened to 'battles are ugly affairs'?"

Santa chuckled, his eyes bright behind rosy cheeks. "And, though you don't seem to have trouble making yourself heard..." Susan took what lie in Santa's outstretched hand - what appeared to be a white horn engraved with a carving of a dragon's head at the mouth of the instrument.

"Blow on this, and wherever you are, help will come."

Susan thanked him; the man turned next to the older brother. "And, Peter," said Father Christmas as he removed a sword and shield from his bag. "The time to use these may be near at hand."

Peter handled the decorative equipment with somber care. The shield was of a shiny metallic alloy and was emblazoned with the image of a red lion rearing up on it's hind legs. The eldest brother unsheathed the sword, who's scabbard was similarly decorated, to gaze upon the double-edged blade. "Thank you, sir," he said in gratitude.

Santa stepped back to look at them all. Donald, seeing that the Pevensies had all received something, jumped up to wave at their benefactor. "Hey!" exclaimed the duck, "Don't we get anything?"

"Ho ho ho," chortled the man. "Well, Donald, you all hardly need any more weapons. However, there is one last thing... Sora." The Keybearer glanced up questioningly as Santa pulled a strange dome shaped object from his sack. "For your missing friend... I believe he was in need of one of these?"

Sora held out his hands to receive the thing, felt the chill of metal and plastic as he noticed the padding and straps that were attached to it. After a second, he said, "It's a helmet." No one else seemed to understand, but Sora smiled as he examined the present. "Oh yeah...me and him were joking that he needed one. Haha..." Then Sora shot his eyes back up again. "Wait, does that mean...?"

Santa nodded with a grin. "Yes, Riku is doing just fine."

Kairi's eyes sparkled and she turned to give Sora a spirited hug. Sora returned it and let out a relieved breath, seeming to relax a little as a happy chuckle escaped them both. Donald and Goofy cheered and jumped for joy behind them.

"Thank you, sir," said Sora. "I'll be sure to give it to him. Though, I wonder if he'll believe me, haha..."

The man acknowledged him and placed his hands on his hips. "Now then," he addressed them all. "They are tools...not toys. Bare them well and wisely. Now, I best be off. Winter is almost over and things do pile up when you've been gone a hundred years!" Santa lumbered over to the front seat of his sleigh and took hold of the reins. "... Long live Aslan!" he called. "And Merry Christmas!"

The reindeer harnessed to the wide sleigh shook their heads and beat the snow with their hooves, snorting the air with puffs of white steam. At the flick of the reins they pushed, at first slowly, but soon they were off at a full gallop. Santa waved merrily as he gained ground.

"Bye...! See you later, Santa!" they waved back. "Merry Christmas!"

As the jolly old man slowly disappeared into the white mounds of crisp snow, Lucy turned to .Susan with a look of smug satisfaction on her face. "Told you he was real," she grinned.

Susan opened her mouth, but was forced to settle for a dirty look that was offset by a smile she failed to restrain.

Sora and the gang were still celebrating the good news of their friend. Amongst the commotion, Peter spoke up. "Did you hear what he said...? 'Winter is almost over'. You know what that means...

Everyone paused whatever they were doing to consider what he was saying. The young man breathed crystallized air as the sound of jingling bells faded into the distance. He looked at them all.

"... No more ice."


I was just as Peter had said.

There was a rushing sound, a dull roar that pervaded the area, made itself known in their ears, echoing and beating relentlessly on the trees all around. It was muffled, though, nearly quiet, rather like a "shhh" that patiently waited for the world to fall silent.

As Sora stood with chilled skin, staring down over the cliff-like banks of the river, he wondered what a waterfall might say if the world stopped to pay attention to it. Would it talk or sing, or just rage louder? Either way, Sora figured, that's what this one was about to do, for a shelf of snow and ice extended on either side of the steep drop from bank to bank – the last part of the river that was yet to melt. Beneath the mask of ice was a flowing undercurrent that was sure to rupture the calm façade at any moment, like an eruption waiting to happen- and they had to cross it.

The Pevensies, the Beavers, and the outsiders looked on together, and in an instant a decision was made. Peter, knowing that time was of the essence, announce, "We have to cross, now!"

Without retort, everyone else followed, making a hasty, oh-so-careful descent on the slippery stone and silt bank that jutted out like tiny steps down the steep drop. They reached the treacherous ice sheet in moments, and as Lucy climbed, asked, "Don't beavers make dams?"

"I'm not that fast, dear," mused Mr. Beaver, already on the ice.

Donald was having some difficulty navigating the rocks, his webbed feet not exactly well-suited for such an activity. "Wak! ..." he uttered as his feet slipped beneath him. "Uh-oh…"

"Donald! Careful…" said Sora, reaching for him. But, unable to keep his grip in the frosted stone, the duck let go and plummeted the last few feet to the ice. He and his feathered behind touched down rather roughly, the blunt momentum causing the ice to instantly split with a crack!

"Waaaak!" cried Donald in fright, literally flying several feet into the air. The broken slab of ice floated back into place ominously; the frozen waterfall seemed to tremble around them. Everyone held their breath. Mr. Beaver hissed quietly. Peter, who was still at the edge of the bank, said, "Come on!"

But Susan, who had just stepped onto the treacherous platform, became keenly aware of the imminent danger. "Wait!" she commanded. "Can't we just think about this for a minute?"

Peter brushed past her with Lucy in hand. "We don't have a minute!" he retorted, urgency in his voice. Sora took a few meticulous steps onto the snow-covered ice behind them.

The oldest sister glared back at Peter. "I was just trying to be realistic," she reasoned, nose flared.

"No," shot back Peter, "you were trying to be smart…as usual!"

One more step cut him short, however, when his weight caused a rumbling break in the ice on which he stood. Quickly, he moved back, with the much smaller Lucy leaping away as well; the crack splintered and grew like a glacial spider web and Mr. Beaver breathed "Wait." And then, "Maybe I should go first."

Peter eyed the spot, breath caught in his throat, and then bobbed his head numbly. "… Maybe you should…"

Skyra, Goofy, and Kairi clung to the frost bank with numb fingers as the beaver stepped forward on webbed feet. Gingerly, he tested his weight, nose twitching and every fur and whisker quivering as the ice murmured in response to his movements.

Anticipation grew heavy in the air. Ardeo chattered nervously and paced back and forth along Lucy's shoulders, crying out suddenly when Mr. Beaver caused a section of the ice to shift. He froze.

Mrs. Beaver chuckled anxiously. "You've been sneaking second helpings, haven't you?" she accused lightly.

Her husband shrugged and laughed quietly, glancing back at them with a sideways smile that seemed out of place considering the situation. "Well, you never know which meal could be your last!" he called back. "... Especially with your cooking."

At this point, the plump mammal had to edge his way around a crumbling spot, and as he maneuvered, decided to go at it backwards, using his broad tail to at the unstable ice. He was now a little more than halfway across. Icicles the size of Sora's arm dripped along the rough face of the frozen waterfall.

Sora glanced at Donald. "Hey, Donald," he breathed, "do you think we can harden the ice with a blizzard spell?"

The duck crossed his arms doubtfully. "It's too weak," he answered. "Unless we use a really big spell to cover the whole thing at once, any more weight could break it." He turned to regard the area in which the ice met the steep bank. "I was thinking of spreading some ice along the sides to keep it a little more intact, though… Still, it's that waterfall that's the problem."

The Keybearer upturned his gaze to said waterfall. The Pevensies began to cross together, slowly, as Mr. Beaver neared the other side. Skyra, Kairi, and Goofy climbed down tentatively onto the ice and watched the other three humans cross over on the pat made by Beaver. The ice rumbled. They quickened their pace.

Susan watched each footstep as if she might sink into a pit of lava. "If Mum knew what we were doing…" she trailed, muscles stiff.

"Mum's not here!" countered Peter.

Halfway in, Ardeo perked up his ears and erupted into an uproar of alarmed cries. For a few seconds, no one knew why. Everyone's attention was drawn to the dragon; Sora got an uncomfortable feeling in his gut, images of Nightmare heartless flashing before him. "What's up with him," he asked.

Skyra shot her up to the waterfall's edge, jaw line tense. "Of all the worst possible times…!" she growled.

The next thing Sora beheld was the rush of grey and white fur as wolves – eight or more of them – appeared suddenly on the ice above. Ear-splitting howls and roaring barks erupted from their throats upon discovering their targets, and it was with terrible ferocity that they raced to the other side ahead of them. Bits of snow fell away from their paws.

Sora had been told who they were: the Witch's Secret Police.

"Oh, no!" cried Lucy.

Peter reacted immediately. "Run!" he urged. Their efforts were in vain, however, and the wolves just too quick. In less than three seconds the wolves had crossed, and two of them plunged head first down the cliff-like bank.

The beasts descended with ravenous agility to cut off their escape. Mr. Beaver's fur bristled as he bore his teeth in every effort to look menacing, but the rodent was swiftly overtaken by the much larger canine. One brutal tackle had him pinned down by the scruff of his neck, struggling and hissing, but effectively incapacitated. The larger wolf stepped past him, unconcerned, and directly towards the three humans.

Mrs. Beaver, upon seeing her husband's peril, cried "No!" and moved forward, only to halt when Maugrim obstructed her path. Behind the Pevensies, Sora, Kairi, and Donald started forward in an effort of assistance, but were forced to pause when their weight further cracked the ice.

"Careful, guys!" warned Goofy. "We can't all cross at once!"

The Pevensies were standing close together; Peter had his sword out and pointed at the threat, but Maugrim kept right on walking, an air of unimpressed indifference surrounding each step. His imposing bulk was a force in of itself as he approached in calculating strides. "Put that down, boy," he sneered in contempt. "Someone could get hurt."

Sora could not see Peter, but from behind he appeared to hesitate, both arms holding the blade stiffly forward. If only I could get over there! cursed Sora.

Mr. Beaver struggled violently against his captor. "Don't worry about me!" he roared, "Run 'im through!"

Water rushed. The platform of ice crackled somewhere deep below them, and Sora decided that there was no time to lose.

Ardeo growled and snapped from Lucy's shoulder, his glare set on the wolf, pupils wide and black. The girl held him close with a frozen whimper.

Above the racket, Susan roared, "Stop, Peter! Maybe we should listen to him!"

Maugrim glanced at her briefly. "Smart girl..." he intoned, a deep and smooth craftiness in his voice. He ignored Mr. Beaver's grunts and looked from the sword pointed at his chest to the eyes of its wielder, his grey irises like steel.

Mr. Beaver was livid. "Don't listen to him!" he screamed. "Kill him! Kill him now!"

A sudden break of ice. Sora growled and shouted, "Peter! Snap out of it; we have to do something!"

The girls turned around, Susan in surprise and slight fury. Peter glanced back to see that Sora was now just a few steps behind them, but he could not keep his sight away from Maugrim for more than a second.

The wolf narrowed his piercing gaze at Sora, apparently unimpressed. "Meddle in someone else's affairs, Outsider," he snarled. "You're no Son of Adam and you don't fool me. We were told of your coming by another visitor, and your 'Keyblades' have confirmed it." A wisp of steam hissed out of his mouth. "Now go."

"No way!" Sora's hands became fists in his defiance. "I'm not letting you do whatever you want!"

"Consider this, then." The Captain of the Secret Police inhaled slowly before letting out a rising, high howl. Responding in concert, the other wolves on the cliff bank erupted into a symphony of voracious barks. The discordant sound assaulted their ears and made Sora flinch and he was very much confused when a plethora of black spots suddenly entered his vision. Only when he began to hear rough, ragged wing beats and the unmistakable chitter of grinding metal did he understand why.

This had nothing to do with fatigue or optical hallucinations. Something in Sora's gut sank when he turned about to see the oily black heartless that hovered over them with wretched, leach-like mouths.

Gasps of shock and fear were heard from both the Pevensies and from those standing behind Sora. Ardeo hid with ears flat inside Lucy's collar, emitting a nervous whine as he glanced restlessly from one ugly creature to the next. On the shore banks on either side, rows of lupine Nightmare heartless glared down darkly.

"I was informed that your weapons have the effect of attracting more heartless," continued Maugrim. "So summon it, if you're so intent on stopping me...and then we can see how much weight this ice can hold." The large grey wolf sent Sora a piercing stare that held no pity or remorse. "Are you really sure you want to play this game, human?"

Sora clenched his jaw, a tense breath of air hissing out of him. He glanced at his friends behind him and then back at Maugrim, his right hand tightening at where his Keyblade should be.

"Of course, I can offer a way out..." said the wolf. "Leave now, and perhaps I'll banish the heartless already under my control."

Susan looked as if she were about to snap, but rather than panicking completely, turned her frustration on Keybearer. "Not again, Sora! Just stop it already; this has nothing to do with you!"

Maugrim gave the barest of chuckles.

"No!" cried Sora, gesturing with his hands an expression of frustration. "You...you can't trust what he says!"

"Sora's right! He's a conniving - Aaahhhh!" Mr. Beaver was cut off by a crushing bite at the base of his neck, causing him to stop squirming out of sheer pain. The wolf standing over him pressed his head and torso down into the ice.

Peter eyed the heartless bleakly. "... I'm not seeing much of a choice here, Sora..." he breathed. His younger sister huddled close to him. A low rumble echoed around them, announcing yet another crack lurching somewhere deep below.

"The girl said it best," chimed Maugrim darkly. "This is none of you business. So why don't you just stay out of it."

At his words the heartless raced forward - a mob of black wings that seemed to shred through the whiteness in front of Sora, cutting off his sharp retort. Like a wall they pushed at him, squirming and gaping with their parasitic mouths in silent squeals, and Sora fell back in an instant of sheer horror, mind numb as he hit the unstable ice. A layer of snow chilled his fingers as he slowly began to move, breathing out with closed eyes. He thought he heard someone call his name, probably Kairi.

Roxas buzzed within his mind. I'm alright, Sora answered. But we have to do something, fast; there's no time...!

He felt the Nobody's feelings of urgency. We could use Glide...he offered, but Kairi and Skyra can't...

Sora began to lift himself, staring down into the footprints that littered the snow layer. I was thinking an Aero spell to lift everyone off the ice...

... But now there's heartless on either bank, finished Roxas.

Sora curled his fingers tight at the invading cold, clumps of snow lodged messily inside his robe-like coat. He shuddered, searching. But then, ripping though his frantic calculations came a sound he thought he had forgotten. It was so unnatural, a distorted sucking that rushed above the muffled water as darkness tore itself a hole in the air. Sora's eyes shot upward - and the sight kept the breath from entering his lungs.

There, materializing from darkness, every inch magnified in the sunlight, was Xemnas in full. He stepped out from his portal, black boots resting only inches from Sora's arm. First, the bottom of the coat filled up Sora's vision and then he lifted his head - unbelieving and frozen - and felt cold. Not like the chill permeating his body from the outside world, but true cold that turned his chest into ice.

The shadow stood tall over him, the image of his amber-eyed face branded deep inside his mind, and all Sora knew was that he could no longer move.

Xemnas stared down, seeming to wait an agonizing eternity, before speaking. "I come so far just to meet you again, and all you give me is silence?" His voice resonated deep and calm; he drew his crimson blades in a sizzling hiss, and brought one pointing slowly over the boy lying under him. "As insolent as always, aren't you, Sora...?"

The red of Xemnas' Etherial weapons shimmered and reflected in Sora's eyes as he stared, only barely hearing Roxas call his name over and over.

Suddenly a torrent of light and ice and one metal shield assaulted Xemnas from his left side, and there was a shuddering flash as a magical barrier absorbed the brunt of their attack. The Knight caught his shield, and with a glance Xemans sent out thorned tendrils of black and white to swipe at them. All who had attacked were thrown back with a collective cry, and Donald, being lighter than Kairi and Goofy, crashed bodily with the rocky bank before falling again onto the ice. Goofy scrambled over to his side and did something very rare; he turned towards Xemnas with a glare so furious that one could have seen sparks of anger forming between the two.

The shouts of his friends seemed to bring Sora back to his senses; he blinked and mumbled, "Donald..." while trying to get up, but Xemnas only inched the blade forward and commanded, "Stay."

Sora felt the hot, electrified tip aimed at his heart, and obeyed.

"I have a message to give you," stated Xemnas, "and it's my intention you receive it in full."

The heartless beside them parted, and between the rapid wing beats came Maugrim's gruff voice. "You... Why have you returned here?"

Xemnas answered without taking his eyes off Sora's. "I came to watch. Thank you, Maugrim, for setting this up so well..." The Pevensie children stared back in utter disbelief. A second passed in which Maugrim growled audibly.

"No need to be concerned;" Xemnas assured, "I will not interfere with your plans any further." He blinked at the Keyblade Wielder, who was beginning to make an interesting, albeit predictable, face. "Now then... Listen well, Sora; yours is a lesson most grim."

"I don't care about any lessons that come out of you...!" growled Sora. He stared up at Xemnas, hard, with fingers clenched. "You've already done enough. What else could you possibly want from me, Xemnas?"

The Nobody smiled steadily, and made a sound not unlike a chuckle. He watched Sora's expression tighten before answering, "I want you to fight in vain, and despair as you watch your friends slip away."

In that instant, as the beating of wings seemed to intensify, Xemnas simply vanished, and was gone - like a ghost. But then, shadowed by the light of the sun, something rushed forward and seized Sora violently by the throat of his collar, and before he could so much as grab whatever had taken hold of him, he was airborne.

"Sora!" cried Kairi, only able to watch as Sora was lifted high above them by what she could only describe as a person with...a single black wing? Within the second, the mysterious man was high enough to toss Sora by his shirt onto the top of the frozen waterfall. The figure dressed in red then drew a long, crimson blade and beat his wing in preparation to strike.

Several feet to Kairi's right stood Skyra, who currently did not share her concern for the Key Bearer's well being. Rather, her attention was on Xemnas, who had reappeared several paces back from his last position and was now hovering barely an inch over the edge of the ice.

Out of the four of them, Skyra had been the only one to avoid Xemnas' attack. Without looking at the others, she gazed, fixated, at the Nobody - the one whom they opposed. Enemy of the King and all the worlds. With a trained eye she absorbed him entirely. His shape, his exact distance, everything within the slow span of three seconds. Steadily, she unsheathed two knives, one in each hand, and took aim...

Whoosh! A flick and a twist, and the wicked sharp knives were sent singing towards their target. Skyra came out of a backhand throw, expecting to see Xemnas either gone or turned into a pin cushion. But instead she realized the Nobody had, with only minimal effort, caught the fatal projectiles dead in their tracks. His movements had been so incredibly swift, efficient - he gripped them surely in both hands, as if he'd delicately plucked the knives right out of the air.

Skyra was annoyed at the apparent ease with which he had evaded her. How had he learned such skill?

She initiated a quick follow-up toss, but before her hand could leave her vest Xemnas reacted with a blindingly fast assault. Skyra twisted low, just as her own throwing knives whizzed past her, and watched them stick jaggedly into the cliff face at their backs. It was then, tracing a path from one blade to the next, that Skyra noticed who was standing at the very cleft of the steep bank.

Her vision zeroed in, and everything else ceased to matter.

Havok sneered down at her, ignored by the heartless not far away.

The next several seconds passed in relative chaos. Goofy assisted an unsteady Donald into a fragile standing position, and the Pevensies were trapped between the threat of Maugrim and the terror of the winged figure's elevated onslaught upon Sora. The heartless were everywhere, and Kairi had probably never been more scared - especially with Xemnas still there.

She didn't know exactly why; maybe it was his imposing presence or because he'd threatened her friends before - or because of his ability to literally be cold and uncaring. But as she tried to process him, just take in the fact that he was there, something else caught her attention, and Xemnas', too.

Kairi almost didn't catch it, but there by the banks, morphing into reality like a shade, was a figure so dark and indefinable that she almost thought something had somehow caught fire and caused a cloud of smoke to appear. That was impossible, of course, especially once that figure took shape and leapt with sudden ferocity at Xemnas, who readied his blades in retaliation.

The mysterious person closed the gap in a single dash, his large black scythe extended in preparation to attack. Once Xemnas realized who the figure was, however, he fled with a snarl, a storm of jagged dark wisps covering his escape.

The scythe shredded through cold, empty air, and the hooded figure landed smoothly on the ice. The resulting tremor caused an instant break in the fragile platform, but the man did not seem to notice, or at least care. The figure recovered and stepped back, just as the chunk of ice severed itself from the main body and began to idly float away from the space that Xemnas had previously occupied.

Appearing to curse his luck, the person clenched his hands into fists while staring at the spot where Xemnas should have been, his composure stiffening in a mild display of vexation. Then, seconds later, he finally turned his head to regard all the noise - taking brief notice of Sora and his winged assailant, the wolves, the Pevensies. And the young girl standing helplessly on the ice, all wide-eyed and looking straight at him.

Kairi had no idea what to think of the shadow standing before her, the black of his cloak set in such startling contrast to the snow. What little she could see of his face was ashen gray and slashed with strange black marks. His expression was impossible to read. The white of his irises bored into hers, glowing faintly within the shade of his hood.

A moment passed, and dark smoke began to emanate from the stranger's body. His gaze lingered on Kairi as she watched him break apart into a formless cloud that billowed as it fled to somewhere far out of sight into the woods.

Between her curiosity and the danger she was in, however, Kairi was forced to return her attention back to the danger - both hers and that of Sora's. And right now she wanted to scream, because he was under attack and she was stuck there. "Sora!" she called.

"...Kairi!" grunted Sora's voice, distant.

After attempting several more times to communicate with him, she realized that no clangs of crashing metal were erupting from above, meaning that the mysterious man was attacking, but Sora was not using his Keyblade. He did not want to attract more heartless - no matter what, it seemed - and Kairi wanted to break down in frustration because that meant that Sora was defenseless, and she was useless.

Powerless. Again.

Tears began building up in her eyes but she bared her teeth, nostrils flaring with her quickened breaths. She found solid footing and then glared upward, stiffening her arms in trembling fury.

If there was one thing Kairi knew at that moment, it was that this was not happening again. Keyblade or no, she was stopping this. Light came easily to her - she would fight with that, even if she had to control it without the help of her Keyblade!

"Get. Away!" she roared, pulling back one hand to form an orb of white light magic. It was pulsing and unstable, bolstering with barely contained energy that matched her anger. She sent it flying like a bolt; it just missed her target. She did it again, and again, but the winged man swooped boldly about, diving at Sora while mostly ignoring her.

"Come on; we need to help him!" she exclaimed.

When she turned, however, Skyra was rigid, and looking in the wrong direction. It was only then that she recognized a young man standing above them, garbed in an assortment of dark clothes and special gear.

Kairi's eyes flicked from Skyra to Havok and back, a sliver of dread gripping her insides. "Skyra..." she started, but the warning had no effect."Skyra! Listen to me, you can't go after him!"

Unfortunately, her words barely even put a dent in the barrier between Skyra and most of the world. The girl looked like an enraged animal that was barely able to stop itself from breaking out into a frenzy.

"She's right, Skyra," said Goofy firmly. "Ya can't go: we need ya here!"

If there was a part of Skyra that was listening to them, a part that thought rationally and actually understood what they were saying, it was quickly overwhelmed, crushed, and tossed aside - and Kairi saw clearly the exact moment in which it happened. A snarl set on Skyra's face and she bolted across the wet, melting ice. All the screaming and pleading that Kairi could muster had no power to stop the older girl from scaling the cliff face within seconds, snatching her embedded knives along the way, and leaping just high enough to bypass the wolf heartless and shoot out of reach. The Nightmares rippled with ferocious intent, but, under the command of Maugrim, stayed put.

"No!" cursed Kairi, head wrapped roughly in her arms, eyes squeezed shut. "Skyra!"

Bursts of intense cries rang, frenetically, from somewhere behind them. Eventually, Kairi looked back towards the Pevensies and noticed that Ardeo was attempting to break away from the cloud of parasitic heartless that had surrounded the group like a jaded black shroud. The slippery creatures clung tightly and attempted to latch onto him, but with much squawking and flapping, the dragon was finally able to free himself.

Ardeo wavered fifteen feet above now, crying out and making gurgling noises with his throat while staring off in the direction Skyra had gone, as if he was unable to decide on a course of action. He flew back and forth and then back again in desperation, craning his head from one side to the other, eyes flickering brightly. Finally, the dragon unleashed a barrage of flaming violet streaks to burn and singe the heartless. He tried to shoot some at Maugrim, but the wolf evaded them and growled menacingly. Ardeo, now without options, looked sadly back at Kairi and the others before winging his way after his human companion.

The Princess of Heart followed Ardeo's progress with eyes rubbed red, and when he was gone she again set her sights on the winged swordsman.

"Come on!" she roared at the others, firing orbs of light even faster than before.

Goofy sighed, tried to straighten his slouch, and readied his shield. Donald winced, but was able to stand on his own.

They were going to fight as the last moments of that waterfall's lifespan trickled down to zero.

Meanwhile, somewhere above, Skyra thrashed her way deeper into the wood, every step bringing her closer and closer to Havok, and, whether she knew it or not, to Xemnas.


After being hit with a blizzard, nearly frozen, and almost dying of hypothermia, Riku marveled at how he had still somehow managed to remain impressed with the snow. He stomped forward with his chin tucked as far down as possible into the collar of his coat, fists stuffed adamantly into his pockets. Moisture clung to his black scarf from each breath, but he endured the discomfort it caused because no matter how hard he tried, he was never able to inhale through his nose without first using the scarf to take the frigid bite out of the air. He mainly kept going in a straight line - head down, eyes peeking out only to see the ground directly in front of him.

His right side was predominantly nothing but a wavering field of white, with a cliffside and some trees in the distance. To his left - the meandering edge of a forest to which he walked parallel.

And up ahead...well, that wasn't much to look at, either.

Riku was beginning to feel the inevitable effects of the snow that had snuck into his shoes and melted there. The stuff was irritatingly persistent in making his toes and heels numb - no matter how neatly he avoided trudging through it - and quite honestly he was getting tired of having to squint through the snow's white glare. Made his eyebrows ache.

Still, the world was beautiful, and he couldn't deny that. Step by step he bided his time, lapsing into periods of mindless wanderings only to resurface and wonder numbly if his friends were nearby. How far would he have to go? The next ridge? The next tree line? How many miles until...wait...

He came to a gradual halt.

... What was that?

He glanced down and blinked. There had been a twinge of something, a tingling electricity in his spine. He thought he could recognize it as tremble of danger, and yet, nothing around him should have stimulated such a feeling...

In his confusion entered a voice.

"Oh Riku, you seem to have lost your way..." it said, familiar. Behind him.

With eyes flared, he spun, already knowing who it was. The darkness reached up, forming a portal as a figure stepped into being in the pristine snow. The man was exactly as Riku last remembered him. His tall form was garbed in that white, black-streaked coat, his silver hair livid, eyes quite alive. Two boots stepped down and sank two inches.

The Corridor of Darkness swirled and faded; a blaze of black and purple ignited at Riku's hand. On reflex he leapt backwards, Keyblade raised over his head, a ball of dark firaga writhing at his palm. His ocean eyes narrowed.

"And I suppose you just stopped by to give me directions," he spat sardonically, every muscle tense. Compressed breath hissed through both his nostrils and locked teeth.

Xemnas merely blinked and shifted his head slightly. Somehow he made such a simple motion look so sinister. "In a sense..." he answered, slowly."Forgive me for not showing myself in person until now. You could say that I..." he paused for the right word, "...found it necessary to conceal myself."

Riku's lip curled in disgust. "Yeah, well it's about time," he hissed. "You've got a lot to answer for." His heart became noticeably loud as he met the Nobody's steady amber glare with one of his own, the organ like a swelling, pulsating thing that beat around inside him like some riveting machine about to slowly shake itself loose. Each thrumming spasm was fire, raw and roaring - a consuming flame. It ignited in his veins, making his chest burn. It was what Riku thought was likely a combination of adrenaline and hate.

That photo of the girl and her dead father floated vividly before his vision.

"Don't we all..." Xemnas looked unconcerned as he shifted his gaze to Riku's burning hand. The man's calm visage assumed a state of wry amusement. "It appears you are able to use you dark fire once more," he remarked. "I hadn't predicted you would get over it so soon..."

A flash of something shuddered inside the back of his neck. He flicked his eyes down to his left hand - then back again - breath catching in revelation. "How did you-?" A cold flash pressed itself into his skin.

Xemnas seemed to have expected the reaction. He began pacing, slowly forward, a satisfied smile playing on his lips. He gave a quietly mocking chuckle. "You didn't think I knew...about you little accident?"

He said the word so precisely. Something in Riku twitched.

"I can only imagine how it must torment you..." The Nobody seemed to craft every word like venomous needles that stuck themselves in Riku. "Being capable of inflicting such damage on a close friend..."

Xemnas continued step by step, crushing the snow beneath him with each imposing stride. Closer. Closer. Riku seemed unable to move. His enemy's golden eyes filled his vision.

Xemnas wore one of his empty expressions of sympathy, his eyebrows furrowed in a slightly upward position, as if filled with some sadness. "And to think," he said with pity, "you finally thought yourself finished with hurting the wrong people."

Somehow Riku's mind had become wholly absorbed on those mere words. They reverberated around inside him, banging in his head and gripping some indefinable part of him in a crushing fist. He was tipping, looking down over edge of a steep cliff...

...but then finally he wrenched himself away. A single shake of his head and a snarling growl revived his senses. He was doing it again, trying to get inside his head - just like Ansem.

"Enough!" he roared with a slash of his Keyblade, his glare filled with new fire. "The last thing I need is a lecture - I asked you how the HELL you knew!"

Xemnas stopped walking. He allowed a breath of a chuckle, his words so clear in the quiet morning. "How else do you think, if I was not there to see it myself? I was told, of course." The man appeared greatly satisfied at having been able to push him to that point.

"Who?"

Internally, Riku took measures to calm himself down; he wasn't about to lose it in front of Xemnas, not if he could help it.

Xemnas smiled.

"Neither I nor Havok have entered your vessel..." he said candidly, then hinted, "Perhaps you should try asking someone who was actually there."

"What...?" Riku blinked, more puzzled than shocked. He thought for a second, and then squinted his eyes in obvious distaste. "Hmph... Did you really think I was actually going to buy that?" he sneered. "I'd have expected you to be better at this."

The Nobody upturned his palms so innocently. "I do not think it is me you should worry about falling for." His head tilted just slightly to one side." I stand to gain nothing from her. She came to me."

'Her?' thought Riku.

"You mean...Skyra?" he asked tentatively, and Xemnas indicated that he was correct. Riku's gut twisted sickeningly and he renewed his glare. "But she has no reason to do that!"

Xemnas answered simply. "Maybe it was her connections with Havok that drew her in. A bit of information in exchange for his whereabouts, perhaps? You yourself already knew how much of a danger she was."

His logic was eerily believable...but, no. No, Xemnas' words were poison - and yet he couldn't help but answer with the next thing that came to mind: something predictable but true...

"She wouldn't-"

"-Tell me, Riku," interrupted Xemnas. "Can you honestly say that you know anything about her?"

A blink. Riku opened his mouth to answer but paused, blinking again when he realized why.

"No? Not even where she came from, or why she's obsessed with killing Havok?"

Riku found that he had no answer for either of those questions. "She wouldn't tell me..." he mumbled, casting a tense but hopeless glare at the ground. He should have known this would happen, but still...His eyes searched every contour of Xemnas's face, carefully, as if trying to decipher how much was truth. He shouldn't even be listening to him, and yet...

"Nothing, I see." Xemnas shook his head very slightly and looked dully at Riku. "How odd, don't you think, that I knew before you did." Now Xemnas seemed less interested, bored, even. "It seems the truth just isn't as common as we like to think it is," he reflected tonelessly - a soft, bladed taunt.

"Tch!" Riku snarled and expelled a hot, roaring breath that left his lungs completely empty. An intense ripple in his arm made him tighten his grip on the keyblade; he growled, "And just how am I supposed to find the truth when you're involved?!" The teen's eyes blazed brightly, infuriated and hot.

"I'm sure you'll figure out a way..." uttered Xemnas. Without warning he vanished instantly into the air, startling Riku as he re-atomized a few meters to his right, his silhouette now against the tree line.

"In the meantime," he said brusquely, "you might want to search for your friends in this direction."

Soulless, yellow orbs fixated themselves on Riku. For a moment they watched, and then, "Farewell."

And with that, Xemnas summoned a Corridor beneath his feet. Riku started. "Wait," he called, "Xemnas!"

But then jagged shreds of darkness raced up and swallowed the man, and he was gone.

Riku stared at the spot where Xemnas had just been, rigid and frozen, too late. He didn't hear another portal open nearby.

Riku's breath was tense, a heavy current of air in a frozen world - the only thing moving, it seemed.

...He had been there.

He had been right there!

He endured a shiver.

Riku couldn't even...he never would have thought that seeing Xemnas would affect him like this...

And what he'd said...

His hand was still on fire. Riku squeezed his eyes shut and then, with a terse "tch!", lashed out with it. He grabbed his forehead hard and let his shoulders sag, not caring to look at how he'd scorched the ground behind him.

There was something off-balanced in the tilt of his body. The metallic Keyblade in his grip seemed so heavy.

Finally, the sound of distant shouting shook him. Using every shred of sanity to push the thought of Xemnas aside, Riku kicked off in the direction the Nobody had indicated.


Roaring was all he could hear.

It was not so much the rushing of the river beneath him as it was the air blasting in and out of his lungs, each desperate gulp followed by a heaving ejection containing the sheer force of a tidal wave. The stinging air had shocked the inside of his throat again and again until the tissue felt raw and burning; his lips were cracked and numb from the brutal cold. Sora was sick and tired of breathing, of moving like this, but he did it anyway. He had to.

Above him, diving about with the ferocity of an arrow, was the object of his worries. The winged warrior in red easily avoided the flurries of light firing up from below (which Sora knew were Kairi's), and thundered down at him with blade extended for the hundredth time. Sora waited until he was dangerously close to being skewered before twisting low, feeling the man's body whip past as he escaped his sword by a narrow margin. The momentum of the dodge caused his knees to bang hard against the ice upon recovery.

"Hnhh…!" he hissed - the sensitive bone throbbing from constant abuse.

Sora, look out! warned Roxas.

He was coming again from above.

Sora forced his burning muscles to push up with all his will, just in time to twist around – the figure impaled the ice, dangerously close now. Close enough to feel the power coming off of him in waves. The Keybearer used this opportunity to attack, attaching himself to the man in a sort of desperate choke-hold. The ice groaned but he squeezed tighter. Unfortunately, however, his opponent was not fazed, and swiftly freed himself by manipulating Sora's arms and throwing him headlong over his shoulder.

Halfway to landing, Sora screamed.

He froze as if paralyzed upon smacking the ice facedown, a patch of blood soaking into his coat from the new slash running across his back.

Sora's fingers convulsed into fists and he struggled to lift his own weight, his mind attempting to process the searing sting that burrowed its way deep inside him. Everything was painfully numb with the cold, and even now, with the heat he should be generating in such a fight, he felt as if he were dragging his own body around like an exhausted hunk of flesh that wanted nothing more than to fall asleep and never wake up.

Got to…get up, he told himself. Gotta get up…

Shaking, his arms obeyed. Sora knew the man was behind him. He took a breath…and then leapt to his feet with just enough time to sidestep the sword and grab its owner's hand. Sora let the man's momentum take him, and in an instant he had his open palm jammed into the small of his back.

"Fire!"

There was a flash of vibrant flame and a satisfying grunt. Sora hunched over breathlessly, thankful for the fleeting warmth of the magical fire as his assailant flapped unsteadily back into the sky.

Nice one… Now what? queried Roxas.

I don't know, replied Sora. I'm running low on mana, and it's only wearing me out more...

Here he comes…!

Sora grunted and started running, hoping somewhere in the back of his ragged brain that the ice would hold his weight. He kicked with all he had, but his legs were weak as jello and his windpipe was constricting dangerously. He could hear them - the wing beats hunting him down, closer, louder, like the wings of death himself. They came until they consumed his senses, and then there was that moment – that familiar split-second – where he had just an instant to avoid that crimson blade.

He turned hard right, feet slipping out beneath him. Thud. His breath rushed out of his lungs. Then, at the expense of all his energy, he was up again, making a break for the forest where he could summon his Keyblade without attracting heartless to the waterfall. He reached the edge and jumped the final stretch, and just when he thought he'd made, it something rammed him head-on.

It hit him like a freight train, so hard his ribs almost cracked, and before Sora could understand why, it left him hurtling backwards with a stream of red blossoming from his shoulder.

"Gahhh-k…!" he gasped, choking. His vision went double as he fell, and a sickening crack assaulted his ears just before everything turned black…

… And then, with a start, he was awake again. Head pounding, eyes burning, everything aching – everything screaming at him in agony. The cold seeped through his coat and shoes, imbuing his whole body in a chill so bitter and icy that it burned, constricted his joints and slowed every attempt to move. Sora wanted nothing more than to just lie there, but, with several wheezing breaths, managed to tenderly turn over onto one side.

He pressed his hand, gingerly, over the place where the joint of his arm met below his collarbone. The blade had run right through him and out the other side, tearing apart bone and sinew and leaving his arm without feeling. Warmth soaked through his fur coat and bled onto his cold fingers. Sora's lip trembled and tightened at each signal of pain and numbing cold; his breaths were labored. Weakly, he gazed up.

The unknown assailant watched him, not a speck pity in his eyes, and without further hesitance readied another strike. Sora watched as he rose high into the blinding white sky, winging around in a wide circle until he came back towards him. The Keybearer's eyes drooped. He felt so tired.

Roxas… I can't take much more of this…

! Sora, what are you saying?! Get up!

I-I'm trying…!

Sora tried – he really did – but the seconds reached their end and it was impossible for him to avoid what was coming. The man in red had gained so much ferocious speed that his feathers and cloak whipped about as if facing a vengeful storm. Like a bullet he was upon him, the long red sword coming right for his chest. Roxas was stammering Sora's name so loudly, he almost didn't hear his soft and desperate "…Reflect…!"

There was a flash and a pause – and they felt as if time had frozen because there was a suspending thought: that Sora and Roxas wondered if they were still alive. Sora heard a crash and a pained breath, and by the time he reopened his eyes the swordsman was already hurtling back, new scratches and tears adorning his face and coat. The magical shield had returned the damage twofold, and Sora took the opportunity to wrench out a Hi-potion and force down as much of it as possible without gagging. He struggled to his feet even as the flesh and ligaments mended themselves back together, still holding his aching shoulder tightly.

I'm still here, thought Sora. Though I can't promise for how long.

Sora watched, weary but with determination, as the man recovered several yards away. He looked heavier now, less graceful as he flew toward the waterfall's edge with his one black wing.

Sora, you can't keep doing this, pressed Roxas. Let me out before he attacks again!

Sora's hand wandered down to the winged heart pendant, his fingers closing around the warm metal as he felt for its usual humming. But, before he had the time to think further, Sora caught a sudden movement from up ahead. It was the flying swordsman; he had flicked his sword in a circle and now hovered, poised as if concentrating as he gradually slid his palm down the blade's shaft. Sora's eyes widened at what he saw – the sword had begun to emit a crimson glow that travelled towards the tip in synch with its wielder's hand. Unfamiliar runic symbols appeared along the flat of the blade, and soon it was completely alight, glowing as if it had been drawn right out of the fiery pits of a forge. He was preparing a special attack.

No time! he told Roxas. You just went back inside me not long ago; it won't work anyway!

The man lifted himself higher, holding his magical sword close to his face as he drew it past his shoulder. A field of red energy radiated suddenly from the weapon, making his hair and cloak ripple. Sora took off like a bullet to meet whatever was coming.

Wait! Sora!

But Roxas' warning fell on deaf ears. Sora closed the distance by just a few strides before his attacker, who had since raised his sword high, brought the weapon down in a crushing arc. A dozen blazing fire bolts came bursting forth as the man sliced the air, roaring and ripping through the cold at amazing speed, like wrathful dragons out for vengeance.

He's going to destroy the waterfall! realized Sora. The missiles came screaming down with only seconds until impact; no one was going to escape. Sora kicked desperately harder, tuning out everything, even Roxas. He had to get there in time – he only had one shot.

The storm of fire began to converge as it reached its target, the separate stars of flame homing in almost to a point. Sora ran with his eyes fixed above him, judged the distance and speed, and then…leap right up to face the fire head-on. The frigid air bit at his face and eyes as it whipped past, but all at once it was replaced with sudden heat. The red-hot fire filled his ears, his eyes - consuming the sky. He waited until they were only an instant from exploding, and then, "Reflect!"

The colorful shield appeared before him and he heard the projectiles crash, but he had little time to observe because something shot around underneath the barrier. Sora gasped, knowing that it must be another fire ball because it was hot, blistering and brighter than the sun. His freezing body would have welcomed the heat, but it grew, escalated too quickly, burned him deep inside his chest and threw him back.

Sora's drawn-out scream rang high above the sound of the water, shakingly sudden and agonizing, lasting until his shocked body slammed into the ice and slid away. The sheath of ice cracked and rumbled but held, and Sora was left trembling on his back near the water's edge.

...S…ra!

His breathing was labored, pained. The fire and the sky had blinded him, left him dazed with eyes squeezed tight.

ora!

His head hurt. His chest hurt, too, and he was so tired. For a moment, he forgot where he was.

Sora! Roxas' voice drifted through the fog. Sora! Are you okay?

"Rox…as…" Sora croaked. A golden light began assaulting his vision from the left – somehow it was oddly familiar.

Why didn't you listen to me? I was going to tell you a better way!

"Hhnnn-k…!" Sora grimaced and tried to sit up, a broken whine escaping his lips as he did so. His arms began to falter, but they held him long enough for him to notice the man with a single black wing diving like a bird of prey from above. Sora didn't even get the chance to blink, and suddenly he was upon him with blade aimed cruelly at his heart. A white flash overcame his vision…and when it subsided, the Keyblade was in his hands.

The ginger-haired man, whose face was now so close, smiled.

Sora stared at the silvery metal, wondering why he felt such dread at its appearance. And then, warping in out of nowhere, were the heartless. They arrived in all types and sizes, some flying, but others earth-bound. The ice all around him cracked, splitting with a sound so stunning it would make anyone freeze. That strange glow intensified, reflecting on the face of his attacker.

Sora! cried Roxas. The lion!

Sora did not even get the chance to comprehend what his Nobody was saying before the light reached critical frequencies and the creature burst out of its own accord. A roar, so bestial and wild it shook his soul, exploded from his arm as he went completely blind.

When he recovered his vision, the man was no longer pressing him to the ice, but instead he was being mauled by the Divine Leo a hundred feet in the air - and rising. Sora scrambled to his knees, saw the heartless and heard the shouts from below.

No! thought Sora. "N-no…! Go away!"

He banished the Kingdom Key, but they were already here and they weren't leaving. The sheet of ice rumbled and broke apart, and a massive crack ripped its way towards him, split, and left the platform he knelt on as its own separate ice floe. Sora staggered to his feet, but he never even got halfway before his legs buckled. They gave out, and Sora was left heaving for air, failing to stand as the ice below him shifted.

He slumped, re-summoning his Keyblade and driving it into the ice for support. He was moving closer to the edge, that much he could tell, but aside from that he could hold on to little else. Sora was losing his vision in a haze of dark purple blotches, and the sound of shattering ice seemed to drown out everything. His entire upper torso burned horribly, but the rest of him was shivering uncontrollably; the only thing he could think was, "… No…"

The connection between he and his Nobody was fading. Roxas would fall asleep, too...

The waterfall raged, crumbled, burst into terrible fragments, and everything, wolf, human and heartless, came crashing down. His platform rushed to its end. Sora only wanted to let go.

For a moment, just before he went over, Sora thought he heard a familiar voice scream "Sora!" and, before he lost consciousness completely, the beating of great wings. Then –

…Roaring was all he could hear.

It consumed him, mind and body, and he fell into it.


D: Seraaaaah!

Axel: Sora

Me: Soraaaaaaaa! xD

Well, looks like things are happening again. …Bad things… O.o

Axel: You're such a weirdo.

Me: Ooooh! Ooooh! Guess what time it is now?

Axel: Time to shut up?

Me: Nope! It's…the 101 reviews milestone celebration!

Holy fudge, you guys are awesome! Thanks to all of you, this story reached exactly 101 reviews as of last chapter! AAAAAHHHHH! (starts running into things)

Axel: I'll go get the sedatives!

ooOoo

Fixed typo of the day: "Lucy googled."

So? Are you excited for what happens next?! Tell me what you think with a comment!

Once again, thanks everyone. See you later (hopefully not several months later).