Damn Braig and his damn secret agendas.
Of course it wasn't as simple as wanting to talk. No, Braig needed his help getting to that terminal – past all the hostile Nobodies – so that he could get access to some secret Organization chamber beneath the Heartless Manufactory!
Lea ran as fast as he could. The secret exit deposited him just outside the castle restoration site. Lea kept running all the way up the hill to the castle ramparts, through the twisting corridors inside, and all the way through Ansem's study.
Gasping for breath, Lea took a moment to rest just outside the Heartless Manufactory entrance. If he'd kept his old black coat, then using a corridor of darkness to get there instantly would have been a viable option. Instead, he'd traded it out so that he'd stop reminding Leon and the others of his guilty past. So now, like everyone else, he had to get everywhere the old-fashioned way.
Changing teams had its downsides.
Once he'd recovered enough, Lea dashed into the Manufactory. Sure enough, there was a ramp leading down beneath the floor, leading to some new dark area. Lea charged down the ramp.
The ramp brought him down to a landing in a place completely different from anything else in the entire world of Radiant Garden. He was in a great, tall shaft, with a ramp spiraling downward towards the bottom. It was all dark and he couldn't see the bottom – the walls were black and the floor was patterned gray and dark blue. The only light came from above and from the pipes running through the platforms and along the outside walls, pulsing red and blue as something traveled along them. None of this looked like anything else in Radiant Garden, or even anything that Organization XIII made.
Lea charged down the spiral ramp, going further down into the dim depths below. The ramp went down quite a few revolutions of the shaft, to the point that Lea was considering just jumping down a few levels to save time. But before he committed to that decision, Lea saw the end in sight: the floor of the chasm, and a pair of sliding doors near where the ramp ended.
Lea ran down and stood in front of the doors, which slid open automatically. A long hallway was on the other side, featuring yet another change in architecture. The floor was dark blue polished tile, the walls were white, and the entire hallway was properly lit.
The former Organization member charged down the hallway immediately, but his attention was caught by what he was passing. Lining both sides of the hall were doors – cells, prison cells with bars in the diamond-shaped windows of the doors. The security seemed to be tight – a keypad was next to every door instead of any discernible handle or knob, and there were even chains crossing the doors' bottom halves.
The only other color in the hall besides white, gray, and dark blue was red. There were streaks of red running down from the ceiling to just above the cell doors. Lea couldn't quite tell if they were pipes, lights, or something else.
Something clicked in Lea's mind. "Is this... where they did their experiments?" he wondered quietly.
There was a strange sound from the end of the hall. A sound that seemed to combine the crackling of electricity and the hum of raw energy. It was coming from beyond a door at the end of the hallway.
Lea ran up to the door, but slowed down as he approached to quiet his footsteps. He also summoned his chakrams as he got close, flattening himself against the wall next to the sliding door.
"Looks like a success!" he heard Braig's voice from within the room. "It fits you like a charm."
Lea stepped out, the sliding door opened, and he rushed in.
This room – the final room, for there were no other entrances or exits – looked a little more like the Organization's work. Everything was white and gray, but there were black chains (not actual chains, just designs on the floor) stretching to and fro and up the walls. Each chain connected to both the white throne in the center of the room and to one of the black Nobody emblems along the wall.
Lea stepped to the side to see past the great white chair, and sure enough – there was Braig. But there was someone else with him.
A woman in blue armor, weilding a blue and steel Keyblade. The woman turned from Braig to Lea and said, "And who is this?"
Braig turned around and jumped a little in surprise. "Oh. Guess you found my little secret, huh?"
Lea was a little too confused to focus on his anger towards Braig. Staring at the woman, he lowered his chakrams and muttered, "We'ren't you...? Aren't you...?"
Braig cleared his throat. "Lea, meet Themis. Themis, meet Lea."
"What?" Lea mumbled, more confused by the name than anything else. For some reason, he'd been expecting some other name...
"Is this an associate of yours, Braig?" Themis asked, her voice utterly calm. "Another one of your master's 'thirteen?'"
"Oh, no no no no no," Braig denied quickly. "He just helped me open the chamber."
"Wait a minute!" Lea shouted, his confusion turning into clarity and rage. "You used me to get in here, and for what?"
Braig opened his mouth to speak, but Themis cut him off. "I required the armor and Keyblade of an old Master. I believe this one was named Aqua." She looked at Braig. "He was sent here to open the way for me."
" ," Braig muttered, putting a hand over his eyes.
Lea couldn't believe what he was hearing. All this to steal a Keyblade? "How is that even possible? Keyblades only respond to their chosen master – you can't use one that's not your own!"
Themis raised the Keyblade towards Lea and replied, "I beg to differ. Ice Lance."
Lea knew a spell invocation when he heard one. He quickly brought his chakrams up and summoned a wall of fire right in front of them. A great spear of ice appeared before Themis and launched itself at Lea. Lea's fire defense blocked against the impact a bit, but some of the ice made it through and hit Lea for reduced damage.
Themis, standing perfectly poised, swung her Keyblade and intoned, "Electro Bolt."
For this one, Lea had no ready defense. He tried to dodge, but couldn't avoid being struck by a massive lightning bolt. Lea resisted to the best of his ability, but was driven to his knees by the attack.
His head swam for a few moments, and he was unable to get his bearings. When his vision cleared, Braig was standing above him, aiming one of his Arrowguns at his head.
"I'll take care of him," Braig said, a nasty grin on his face. "You run along and report to your boss."
Themis nodded and walked out of the room, bringing up what seemed to be a cellphone. Lea could hear her footsteps echoing down the hallway, as well as her voice as she spoke to someone: "Brother, I have acquired my equipment. I am told Hyperion was also successful, so that just leaves..."
Lea looked up at Braig, who was holding a finger in front of his own mouth in a 'shush'ing gesture.
The Arrowgun fired, but the glowing dart jabbed into the wall behind Lea.
A few seconds passed in silence, until they were completely unable to hear Themis's footsteps and speech anymore. There hadn't been any sound of a door sliding open, so she had to have used some kind of portal.
"Gullible," Braig remarked. "Like little kids."
Lea just glared at Braig from where he was sitting. He could still feel the shock and burn from the electrical attack. "You talking about me or her?"
"Hey, you didn't make it easy," Braig joked. "I had to work to get you to do what I want." He extended his hand down to Lea to help him up.
Lea groaned and grabbed Braig's hand. "So that's it?" he asked as he got back to his feet. "We just let her walk out with someone else's Keyblade?"
Braig shrugged. "You're free to do something about them if you want. Though she's probably off-world by now..."
Lea just gave Braig an incredulous look. "I'm free, and you're not? You had to help her?"
"That's the idea." Braig pointed at his non-patched eye. It was a bright golden color. "See this? This means I'm already half-Xehanort. Hell, I've been Xehanort's number two for almost a decade now. You think I can just walk away from this?"
The story slowly came together in Lea's mind. He folded his arms and said, "You just NOW started having second thoughts."
Braig grimaced. "It's obvious now, isn't it? No matter how close he gets, Master Xehanort's just destined to lose every single time. When I was Xigbar, I was sure Alexander would 'Game Over' before he got to us, but... no, it happened exactly the way he knew it would happen."
"He even improved it a little," Lea added, pointing at himself.
"Not the point," Braig muttered. "Point is... I get it. I know I'm on the wrong side. But Master Xehanort doesn't get it."
"It's Xemnas, er, Xehanort," Lea pointed out. "He's not the type to give up on a decades-long scheme."
Braig sighed. "But he's making it harder for me to..." Again, Lea got to see Braig in a rare state of fear and worry. "...for me to get out. Instead of giving up on this plan, he's hatching new plans by the cartload. That's what this whole thing was."
"Tell me the plan, then," Lea said. "Maybe you can't, but the rest of us..."
"I can't be too obvious," Braig interrupted him. "If he catches on that I've even said this to anyone..." He made a slicing motion across his neck. "That's it."
Lea frowned at him. "Okay... without being too obvious..." He leaned in towards Braig. "What do I need to know?"
The former apprentice of Ansem the Wise thought about it for quite a while. "Damn, this must be what Alex feels like all the time..." he quipped.
Finally, after a long period of silence, Braig seemed to come to a decision.
"All I can tell you is that he's got two plans in motion," he explained. "One for Sora, and one for Alex. This whole thing with Themis? That's part of the Alex plan. But the Alex plan is really just meant to be a distraction from the Sora plan."
Lea knew that wasn't good. Roxas was still inside Sora. If what Braig was saying was true, then Xehanort had a possible angle on Sora. "What's the Sora plan?"
"Sometime very soon, both Sora and Riku are going to head for the Sleeping Worlds," Braig said. "That's where we'll trap them. And that's all I'm going to say about it. About everything."
Lea didn't know what the Sleeping Worlds were, but he got the general idea. "So what do I do about these two plans?"
Braig just shrugged. "Hell if I know. These plans always seem airtight the way Xehanort explains them... but there's gotta be a flaw somewhere." He thought for a second in silence, and added, "My advice? Send backup."
"Thanks," Lea jabbed sarcastically.
"I'm not the hero here," Braig said in his defense. "You guys gotta figure it out. I've done all I can."
Black tendrils of darkness appeared at Braig's feet, slowly rising up to envelop him entirely. As he began to disappear, he grinned at the other former Organization member and said, "Best of luck, Axel."
Lea blinked... then smirked right back. "It's Lea. L-E-A. Got it memorized?"
It was a long trek back to Merlin's house in the borough, made even longer by all the thoughts weighing on Lea's mind. He still wasn't sure on what side Braig stood, he wasn't sure how to respond to the news that Xehanort was back, and he had no idea how Leon and the others were about to greet him.
He hoped the tape recording proved... something. There wasn't really much guilt or redemption in what he'd said in the Cavern of Remembrance – just two former assosciates talking and trading information.
Lea finally reached the house and opened the door, resigned to his fate.
"Well hiya, Axel!"
Lea looked up to see Goofy inside the house, waving at him. "Goofy?"
It was indeed Sora's friend from Disney Castle, Goofy, standing there with Leon and the rest of the Committee. Needless to say, Lea was more than a little surprised.
"His name's Lea, Goofy," Yuffie pointed out with a grin.
"You changed your name?" Goofy asked, tilting his head a bit.
Lea chuckled sheepishly. "No, no, that was my original name." Then he shook his head and said, "More to the point, what are you doing here?"
"Well," Goofy began, "Yen Sid wanted me to come out here and check on things before goin' to see Alex. Us and the King ran into this guy called Hyperion, and we wanted to see if you guys had seen anything strange too."
Aerith shook her head. "Can't say that we have..."
Lea, however, was suddenly suspicious. "Hyperion?"
Goofy nodded. "We caught him stealing a set of armor and a Keyblade belonging to someone really important. He got away, but it sounded like he had some partners."
"Partners..." Lea muttered quietly.
Leon looked straight at Lea, still with a serious look on his face. "What did you find in the Heartless Manufactory, Lea?"
Lea wasn't quite sure how to phrase what he saw, but he knew he had to be honest with Leon. "Well... uh... Braig kinda... opened up a secret chamber. There was this shaft, then a long hallway with what looked like prison cells... and then one last room, where..."
He trailed off and looked at Goofy. "I think we might've had something like what you were talking about, Goofy. Braig opened up that chamber to let someone else in – a woman calling herself Themis. She took an armor and a Keyblade that was hidden in that room."
Leon's eyes widened. "Where did-"
"She's gone," Lea said with a sigh. "She has some really weird and powerful magic, and... she caught me off guard with it. The armor's gone. So's Braig."
Leon groaned and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Great."
Sensing that his standing with Leon was suffering a bit, Lea decided to bring up some good news instead. "But I did get a lot of information out of Braig."
Lea then proceeded to tell the group everything he'd learned about Xehanort, Xehanort's plans, and Braig's desire to switch sides.
"How do you know this information's good?" Leon asked. "Braig might be tricking you. He manipulated you into entering the Cavern and opening up that secret chamber. Maybe this-"
"What," Lea interrupted, "by dumping a lot of intel on me and saying, 'Do whatever you want?' If he was being sneaky, he could've phrased it differently." Lea rubbed the back of his neck. "I don't know if he's totally genuine, or if this whole redemption thing will pan out, but I don't think there's anything nefarious behind this."
"So..." Yuffie cut in, "what do we do?" She looked to Goofy. "You were going to check in on Alex and tell him about all this, right?"
Goofy nodded. "Yeah. From what we learned in the dataspace, Alex doesn't really know anything about this. Some of it's new, too. Still, Yen Sid thinks he ought to know."
"And Braig said this was part of the 'Alex plan,'" Lea added. "This is going to reach him eventually."
"There's a small problem with that," a new voice sounded off. There was a puff of smoke, and the wizard Merlin appeared in the house.
"A problem?" Goofy echoed.
"Alexander can't leave the world he's in until the game's events have concluded," Merlin said. "What's more, I've been performing some divination spells and... Well, the world he's in right now is downright awful. Full of darkness and misery unlike anything our worlds have ever experienced."
Cid leaned back in his chair. "So if yer gonna do anything about Hyperion and Themis, you gotta get him outta that place first."
Goofy nodded. "Yep, that's where I'm headed. To help him out and then tell him about Hyperion."
"Just you?" Lea wondered aloud. "All by yourself?"
"Well, Donald was gonna come too, but he decided to stay behind and help the King."
Lea glanced at Leon meaningfully. Leon glared back a little.
"I owe Alex one for saving my life," Lea said. "I should go, too." He knew it technically wasn't necessary from what Braig told him – he would've been revived anyway – but the fact that Alex did so still meant a lot to him.
Leon's glare intensified by a notch. "You're just going to leave and-"
"As a matter of fact," Lea added quickly, "there's something else, too." He walked up to Leon and got in his face. "There's no Heartless on this world right now, and Sora's going to need all the help he can get. So while I go help Alex, somebody should go back to Disney Castle or the Mysterious Tower or whatever and help Sora, too."
An awkward silence fell upon the room as Lea and Leon stared at each other.
"Just... leave the city we're protecting?" Leon muttered.
"Actually..." Cid started.
Leon's glare went in Merlin's direction. Cid flinched a bit, and then continued, "There ain't a better time to do it. No Heartless, the defense system's as optimized as I can make it... The city could survive a couple of you leaving for a day or two."
"And this is Xehanort we're talking about," Lea pointed out. "The same person who became the Seeker of Darkness Ansem and the Organization leader Xemnas. The person who ruined this world in the first place. If there's anything we can do to get in the way of his plans, we must."
Yuffie grinned. "I'm in if Leon's in!"
Aerith looked at Leon. "I'd be willing too, but... it's your call, Leon."
The silence that followed seemed to stretch on forever. Leon looked at everyone in the room one at a time without saying anything or changing his expression. Then, finally, he let out a sigh. "You're right, Lea. Sora's our friend, too."
Yuffie let out a cheer. "Woohoo! We're going on an adventure!"
Goofy smiled at Lea. "So you'll join me, Lea?" When Lea nodded back at him, Goofy said, "Alright! Operation 'Let's Go Save Alex' is a go!"
"Don't forget to check in on the other worlds along the way," Merlin added. "Hyperion's and Themis's third partner might have made an appearance. You might also find some allies in the worlds Alexander has visited."
"We shouldn't waste too much time, though," Lea said. "If this world he's in is really so bad, we should hurry and help him."
"Sounds like a plan," Cid remarked. "Gonna be nice, having you all out of here for a few days. Like a vacation."
Leon rolled his eyes and looked back at Lea. "By the way... About the recording..."
Suddenly, all of the good feelings Lea had were gone, and all the anxiety he'd been feeling before he'd walked into the house was back. What was the verdict?
Leon sighed. "You're fine. Stop panicking."
"It's clear you're not an Organization agent anymore," Leon admitted. The frown on his face didn't fade, but some of the anger in his eyes disappeared. "You're on our side."
"Which is what I was trying to tell you this whole time!" Lea cried out exasperatedly.
Leon put a hand over his face. "Just go already."
Lea grimaced, but looked around at the house that had been his home for a few days. In a very short amount of time, he'd gone from being a traitor of a madman's Organization to having a home and a purpose in his world of origin. And he had Alexander to thank for that.
Now it was time to return the favor.
"Alright. Let's get going."
The Interference: Trials of Remembrance