Crusade, Chapter 3: The Kingdom of Morning
Disclaimer: I don't own Kingdom Hearts.
"In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, 'Is it good, friend?'
'It is bitter—bitter,' he answered,
'But I like it
Because it is bitter,
And because it is my heart."
Lightning pulled her sword from the earth, turning grass and soil, and lunged at Kairi. The keyblade sparked as it caught Lightning's sword in a strong parry, and Kairi sidestepped. Good form, just like she'd learned. Lightning spun to her left, catching Kairi in a blind spot with an elbow to the back. Kairi stumbled to the ground but rolled into a crouched position, panting.
"Isn't that kind of playing dirty?" Kairi wiped her mouth and stood.
"The Heartless play dirty. There's no shame in using whatever means necessary when your life's on the line."
They had arrived in this new world through the light corridor, but there seemed to be nothing here but endless stretches of grassy meadows and rolling hills. They began to wander, and Lightning started training Kairi as she'd said she would. Days turned into weeks, and the pair had encountered not even a lowly Shadow. This world was empty and silent.
"Not that it'll do you much good in this world. Seems like we missed the party."
Kairi had that faraway look she got when she was about to say something weird. The girl was odd, no doubt about it, and she acted according to her heart and feelings.
"No, I felt Aurora's light here when we landed, somewhere. This is definitely where we need to be."
"Whatever you say, kid. But we're not gaining much wandering around in the middle of nowhere."
"Hey, I am getting stronger."
"You've got a long way to go."
Lightning barely had time to react when Kairi flung her keyblade and clocked her in the wrist. She dropped her sword. Lightning scowled and cast a Thunder spell. It singed the ground at Kairi's feet and left a smoking, charred crater where the girl had been standing only seconds ago.
"Playing dirty, right," Kairi said, dusting herself off.
"You should never throw your weapon away." Lightning reached for the keyblade to toss it back to Kairi, but the weapon vanished on contact and reappeared in Kairi's hand.
"I'll remember that."
Sunlight overhead reflected off her chainmail, now chinked in places from the abuse she took in training. They had been roughing it since arriving in this world, sleeping under the stars and hunting for food. Kairi never complained, but even Lightning was starting to wish for a bath and a roof over their heads, if only as a break from this vast monotony. Last night it had rained, and they had been without shelter. Neither Kairi nor Lightning had ever been to this world, so they didn't know where to find the Princess of Heart living here.
"I've been meaning to ask you about your magic, by the way. Did Merlin teach you?"
Kairi's words pulled Lightning from her thoughts. Nearby, the ground was still smoking with the after effects of the Thunder spell she'd used earlier. Questions... This one seemed innocent enough, but Lightning still stiffened.
"No one taught me. I just know it."
"So, your world has magic, too."
She remembered a crystalline sea, its waves stopped mid-break, sparkling with the light of infinite aurora borealis. This katabatik nightmare began with a fall to that frozen sea that should have killed Lightning, killed all of them if not for magic.
"More like curses."
Kairi studied her, more curious than suspicious. "Call it a curse if you like, but it's saved us more times than I can count."
She could have dropped it. There was no joy in revisiting these memories, but like a disease there was no shaking them once they caught hold of her. Lightning thought of Serah, of the unlikely people she'd met on the way to saving Serah. All for naught. Serah was still frozen, and Lightning had done all she could. With her world safe but in shambles, the only option was to seek answers elsewhere. Everyone else had returned to normal except Serah. Except her.
Kairi waited patiently, but she didn't turn away. Lightning let her eyes fall as the memories washed over her. All stories had an ending, but not all of them were happy. Perhaps if Kairi could understand that, she could realize that not everyone could be saved.
"In my world, there are divine beings known as fal'Cie. They choose people to carry out a Focus task. Those chosen ones become l'Cie, and they acquire special powers to help them accomplish their Focus."
Lightning paused and put a hand over her heart. It beat like any other heart, but she could picture the brand there, its eye burned shut, frozen in time.
"If l'Cie don't fulfill their Focus, they turn into Cieth, soulless creatures of darkness, sort of like your Heartless. But if they do succeed, their fate's even worse."
"You're one of those l'Cie, aren't you?"
Lightning met Kairi's eyes. There was no hatred there, no fear. Nothing like the citizens of her home world who recoiled at the mere mention of the hated l'Cie. People feared what they did not understand, but not this kid.
"But if you accomplish your Focus it can't be that bad. There must be a way out of the curse."
Silly little princess stuck in a fairytale. No wonder.
"L'Cie who complete their Focus gain eternal life, but they turn to crystal. They live forever, but they're dead to the world. Alone."
It was fascinating watching the light in Kairi's eyes change as understanding dawned. Fear, confusion, anger. This language was familiar to Lightning; it had been for most of her life, especially recently.
Kairi pointed the Destiny's Embrace at Lightning's concealed brand. "Curses can be broken. We'll save Serah."
In all their time together, Lightning had watched this skinny little girl face hordes of Heartless despite impossible odds, slay a mythical monster with the power of her will and a handful of luck, and restore someone's broken heart. It was on par with the miracles and malevolence Lightning had seen in her world, but Kairi didn't seem like the type to give up. Lightning pushed her hard in their training, but she always got back up, even when she knew Lightning would just knock her down again. Kairi wasn't anything special.
Neither was Hope.
She pushed those thoughts away. This wasn't her home world, and Hope wasn't here no matter how much she felt the ghost of him whenever she looked at Kairi. But she wasn't alone.
"Again," Lightning said. "Whenever we find this Aurora, you have to be ready not to die right away."
Kairi smiled. "Yeah, okay."
They fought until nightfall. Cursed or not, at least this much Lightning could do for the ones she loved.
The sea at dusk was a welcome sight after so much rolling greenery. The sand was damp and gave under Kairi's footsteps. She slipped off her shoes and let the cool water lap at her toes as she closed her eyes and took a deep breath.
She could almost pretend she was back on the Islands, waiting. Waiting for Riku and the boy she couldn't remember. But this wasn't the Destiny Islands. No seagulls cooed here, and the scent was crisp, not salty. It was different. Far away.
"A little cold for a swim," Lightning said.
Kairi opened her eyes and gazed at the vast seascape sparkling with the last rays of the setting sun. "Mm."
Minutes passed. The sun set and darkness settled over the world. The partners lingered a little longer in silence. Just as Kairi slipped her shoes back on, the sea lit up like slow fireworks. She gasped, and Lightning drew up beside her. Millions of tiny, blue lights shimmered on the water's surface as far as the eye could see. The waves lapping at their feet twinkled like liquid light. It was so beautiful that Kairi could hardly believe it was real.
"Wow. I've never seen anything like this before."
Lightning remained silent, observing the seascape. "It's almost a perfect reflection of the night sky."
Kairi looked up and sure enough, it was almost impossible to find the horizon separating sea and sky. "What is it?"
"Phosphorescence. Microscopic creatures that emit light. But I've never seen so many like this before. It's almost like—"
She stole a glance at Lightning. It was hard seeing her so lost and forlorn. The only consolation was that one day, they would wake up Serah. Kairi was confident she could do it once she had all the Princesses of Heart's powers. Until then, Lightning would have to keep fighting.
"Yeah, I guess it is."
They walked along the beach, content in the illuminated darkness. There had been no sign of Heartless or Nobodies since they'd arrived. While vigilant, Kairi didn't think they'd have any problems tonight, like every other night.
Soon, they came upon the first human settlement they'd seen since arriving in this world and Kairi squealed in delight.
"I was beginning to think we were wandering a wasteland," Lightning said.
"Hey, maybe someone will have a spare room for us to stay the night. Let's go see!"
They wandered closer to the town, and Kairi noticed that there were no lights coming from the houses. It wasn't very late despite the darkness, so it couldn't be that everyone was already asleep.
Lightning put an arm out to block Kairi's path, her eyes straining through the gloom to see better. Gooseflesh prickled on Kairi's skin despite the warm summer air. Something wasn't right, but she couldn't figure out what. Lightning had picked up on it, too.
Kairi summoned her keyblade, blue eyes scanning left and right for movement, anything at all. "I don't see anything from here."
The pair crept toward the village, barely breathing in their discretion. The main street was nothing more than a packed dirt road, hard with age and use. They walked slowly, weapons loose in their hands and ready to defend at a moment's notice. There was no movement, no jumpy shadows waiting to sink their teeth into them. And still, the chill buzzed upon Kairi's skin, electric.
"It smells like death here," Lightning said.
Kairi hated that she knew what Lightning meant, and she smelled it, too. Rancid, like old blood and sewer runoff, acrid on the back of her tongue.
Kairi paused, having noticed something out of the ordinary near a building at the end of the block. It was a strange shape, pointy and lumpy at the same time, and perfectly still. In the darkness, it was impossible to discern from a distance.
"I see it. Let's go."
They separated and gave the strange figure a wide berth. The half moon overhead followed them, and as Kairi drew nearer its light reflected off the shadowy figure. What she saw made her quake in fear.
"Oh my god."
Lightning circled it, eyes narrowed and calculating. She was in that machine mode she got whenever they had to deal with anything unpleasant. Kairi had no such default function, and she could only stare in horror.
A young man stood before them, his body twisted as though he'd frozen in the middle of a turn. His skin was ashen, almost translucent, and his dark eyes were wide and glassy. Thick, black vines coiled around him. Their thorns pierced his skin like so many daggers. Old blood dripped from his thighs, wrists, chest, and neck. One protruded from his mouth, fat. Flower buds, some closed and some mid bloom, deep crimson in color, decorated the vile plants.
Kairi covered her mouth and nose to block out the stench, but it was too late. She doubled over and wretched. The taste of bile was sweet and sour on her tongue, and just the thought of it threatened to draw up more. Steadying herself with a hand on the ground, she shuddered and coughed. Panting, she peered at their newest companion from behind unwashed bangs. This man looked like he was screaming, but all that came out was the thorny rose vine, too thick around to fit a normal mouth.
"He's alive," Lightning said, feeling for a pulse.
Kairi wiped the tears from her eyes, an involuntary response to her vomiting, and stood up straight to regain her bearings. "Alive? Look at him."
Lightning didn't respond as she continued her inspection with mechanical precision. She touched one of the blooming roses, and her fingers came away wet. "I think the vines are draining his blood."
The open flowers dripped dark liquid onto the ground, and when Kairi looked down she could make out small puddles forming at the man's feet. The sight of his blood pooling under the moonlight sobered her.
"We have to help him," she said.
Before Lightning could respond, Kairi was already poking at the thorny vines, searching for something that could help them. She gasped when one squirmed under her touch. A low, guttural moan emanated from the imprisoned man's gaping maw, and his eyes swiveled around to catch Kairi's gaze. Her heart must have stopped in those few moments. It was like looking into a great crevasse, bottomless and leading somewhere else. This man was barely human anymore, and he suffered. Kairi's hands shook, and her keyblade rattled at her hip.
Lightning hissed. "I think we've got company."
The half moon above offered a decent light source, but night had fallen deep and hard by now. Oily shadows hid night terrors seemingly at every corner. The man Kairi and Lightning had found moaned, as if sensing the approaching danger.
Or calling it.
Kairi held out her keyblade, ready to strike. That modest streak of confidence faltered, however, when a small army of Nobodies converged from the north. Their clunking feet created little tremors with every step.
Their arms were longer than their bodies, and their legs dangled like queer, self-contained swing sets. Kairi gritted her teeth. These were Nobodies, no mistaking it, but they were a different breed than Dusks.
Lightning charged the nearest one, and the Nobodies lurched. Kairi ran and hit one of them, and her keyblade rattled her bones as it ricocheted. Grunting in pain, she twisted to regain her balance. The Nobody she'd attacked had folded in on itself and reshaped into a hexagonal barrier—a shield to block her attack.
Lightning was not much better off. The Nobody she faced had become a giant lance that sliced air and earth in an effort to cleave its target. Kairi blinked away the shell shock and searched for an opening. The six or seven Nobodies that had gathered all began to contort, twisting their forms to attack. There was nothing to do but to be quicker.
Gripping the keyblade with both hands, Kairi rushed at a Nobody mid-transformation and struck it with all her might. It careened into the one that had transformed into a shield, cracking its shell on impact. Kairi followed it and jammed the crown of her blade through the half evolved Nobody to pierce the hard shield below. Inhuman screams rang in her ears as their black blood boiled around her keyblade. She bit her tongue to keep from recoiling from the pungent odor, vile and venomous.
Nearby, Lightning had felled one Nobody with a Thunder spell and now crossed blades with the one that had transformed into a lance before. The sight would have been comical, a young woman trading blows with a sentient blade, but Kairi was more concerned with the remaining Nobodies. They fell without too much effort, and Kairi wondered if they were small fries. And if so, where were the bigger fish?
Just as one of the remaining Nobodies attempted to intervene in Lightning's fight, Kairi heard moaning somewhere behind her. She caught a glimpse of the man upon whom they'd stumbled earlier contort at an unnatural angle.
Kairi opened her mouth in a silent scream as she watched the man's neck snap forward more than forty-five degrees. A broken vertebra protruded from the base of his neck, but there was no blood. At the thought, her eyes travelled to the engorged vines entrapping him, which pulsed with a heartbeat of their own. If she hadn't gone white with fear and already emptied her stomach earlier, Kairi was sure she'd be on the ground seeing stars.
"Lightning," she said.
Lightning was too busy fending off the rest of the Nobodies to hear her.
Petrified on the spot, Kairi could not even summon the energy to quake as she watched what had once been an innocent man rip and fold before her eyes like the pieces of a patchwork doll. His thorny shackles squeezed tighter and tighter until they began to leak. Blood, rivers of it, spurted from the vine's blooming roses and accumulated on the ground. The man could no longer scream, so all Kairi could hear was the schloop, schloop, schlooping of his life energy washing away and coalescing.
A dark figure rose from the puddle, so dark she could barely tell it from the inky night sky all around it. Bubbling and doubled over, it struggled for a moment until something flashed in the moonlight and pierced the ground. A broadsword. The creature used it to pull itself out of the blood and proceeded to hover. Finally, it turned its yellow eyes on Kairi.
Meanwhile, the drained thorns wrapped tighter around the dead man's husk of a body. His arms, pale from a total lack of blood, grew to an impossible length and sprouted razor-sharp talons. His feet burst from his shoes and tore into the earth with nails thicker around than Kairi's wrist. The vines, red with proffered blood, draped across broad, armored shoulders and a torso. Wings, like ultra-thin razors, ruptured the man's back and carried him skyward. And when he popped his head back in place, he was no longer a man. The crevasse looked deep into Kairi and it roared a dragon's roar, hollow and deafening all at once.
"What the hell?" Lightning had heard the roar and broke away from the animated lance to join Kairi.
Lightning's words were enough to shake Kairi from her trance, the horror of what she'd just witnessed dying down out of sheer necessity and an adrenaline high that made her feel light enough to fall into the sky above.
"Where the hell did those things come from?"
"He turned into them. A Heartless and a Nobody."
Speaking the words awakened something in the partners' new foes, and they came to life. The Heartless lunged, saber aiming to decapitate, and Lightning and Kairi were forced to split apart to avoid the blow. Kairi barrel-rolled to the left and emerged on her hands and knees. In the distraction, the dragon-like Nobody sped not toward Lightning and her, but to the flying-lance Nobody. It grasped the lance and brandished it, roaring again.
"Oh my god," Kairi said, her voice cracking.
The monster had been a man in agony only minutes ago.
Lightning was on her feet and already charging the high-powered Nobody, her sword crackling with Thunder magic. Kairi looked around for the Heartless, but to her horror she could not locate it. Only its fearsome sword remained wedged in the ground. Will-o-wisps danced about it, a self-contained seance to wake dead things and demons. Trying not to panic, she searched around for any sign of the moving shadow, knowing all too well what would happen if it found her first.
The night sky offered too little light despite the fat half moon, like something was sucking it dry of its radiance. Kairi's breath was hot on her lips as she squinted through the darkness. A chill up her spine was her only warning, and she lost all rational thought as the weeks of training she'd put in with Lightning took over.
Springing forward, she used the momentum to spin in mid-air and slash the space that had been directly behind her. A shriek, and a hand made of ghost fire split in half under the arc of Kairi's blade. Yellow eyes appeared inches from her own, mirrors reflecting nothing and stealing her sight. She landed hard on her side, but the pain was nothing under the heady rush of adrenaline and fear.
The Heartless had assumed its ghastly shape and reclaimed its weapon, which it now hefted over its incorporeal shoulder. Kairi had no time to compose herself before it lunged, its maw wide in a silent scream. She put up her keyblade to catch the Heartless's downward cleave. It sparked against the length of her weapon, and Kairi staggered as the Heartless attempted to push her down to her knees. Her arms shook, but faltering now would mean certain death.
Lightning crashed into the wall of a nearby dwelling. Its wooden paneling splintered under the force of her landing. Kairi gasped, and in the distraction she lost control of her keyblade. It was enough for the Heartless to knock her backward, slashing her thigh to the bone. Kairi screamed and rolled to the side on instinct, and just in time—the Heartless's sword smashed the ground where she'd been standing before.
Breathing fast through her nose, Kairi blinked back tears and tried to stand on her good leg, the one that wasn't raining a river of blood at her feet. There was no time.
The dragon-like Nobody Lightning had been fighting advanced and began to circle Kairi opposite its Heartless counterpart.
"Damnit," Lightning said. Blood dripped down her forehead from a head injury, and Kairi forgot her own pain for a moment.
"I'm not dead. Stay sharp, kid."
Lightning's voice shook, and Kairi had to wonder how strong her conviction was. This was a disaster. These enemies were far stronger than the ones they'd faced in Looking Glass. Panic replaced adrenaline, and with it came a rush of fear and pain from Kairi's physical injuries. Their enemies seemed unbeatable.
The Nobody roared and charged for Kairi. She jumped to meet its deadly lance in spite of her injuries, but Lightning rammed it from its blind spot. The creature swiped at her with a claw, rending her arm with red ribbons of blood.
Lightning went down and struggled to pull herself up. The Nobody took to the sky again and positioned its lance for the killing blow. The Heartless kept its eyes on Kairi, and she was sure it would attack at any moment.
This was not how it would end. Just as she'd beaten the Jabberwocky, Kairi stubbornly resolved to beat these lesser threats. They were nothing compared to that beast. Nothing.
Raising her keyblade, Kairi called upon the light in her heart. It burned, like every vein in her body was on fire and turning to ash with each breath she took, but she didn't care. This was the only way. A bright light shot from the end of the keyblade and fanned out around Kairi and Lightning. The Nobody and Heartless screeched, but they could not penetrate the barrier. Hissing, they attempted to flee, but Kairi had other plans. With a battle cry, she pushed with everything she had. The light caught up to the fleeing foes, trapping them in its searing heat. They cried out as it infected their undead bodies, creeping through their veins like a fast-working toxin. The Nobody fell from the sky and clawed its way forward on crumbling claws, bleeding black and steaming. The Heartless smoked as though on fire, and it dropped its broadsword.
"Kairi," Lightning said, squinting and shielding her eyes from the blinding light.
But all Kairi could hear were the blood-curdling screams of her dying enemies disintegrating under the force of her light. The Heartless dissolved into nothing with a burst of white fire, and the Nobody finally fell still. It lay in a stinking ruin of its own congealing blood and misshapen limbs. It had died in agony.
The light disappeared with a brilliant flash, and Kairi fell to the ground. White light clouded her vision, blinding, and somewhere nearby Lightning was shaking her, asking her to wake up. Sleep was more appealing, though. At least Lightning was okay. At least Kairi could do this much.
Just before the world faded, Kairi noticed three bright lights circling Lightning and her. Red and green and blue, like a baby's crib charm. They lulled her to sleep with their swaying, and even Lightning's voice could not bring her out of it.
She was out cold.
"I'm so glad we found you."
"If only we'd arrived sooner! You poor dears."
"Well, I think you should be more careful. It's not safe to go outside at night these days."
Unfamiliar voices echoed in Kairi's head, like the remnants of a forgotten dream. She was falling in a stark white place, like the center of a blizzard, but it wasn't cold. Nearby, fire crepitated and emitted warmth, but she was blind to it.
"Someone should've told that to the guy in the vines."
Lightning's voice reached Kairi, and she stirred awake. Far from falling, however, she was lying in bed next to a roaring hearth. From what she could feel, that is—thick bandages wrapped around her eyes. Eager to familiarize herself with her new surroundings, she tore it off. The room was a one-room cottage from the looks of it. The kitchen, living room, and bedroom were all cramped into one cozy space. Gasping for air, Kairi put a hand over her heart. Still beating.
"Kairi," Lightning said.
"Hey, you're okay."
Lightning's gaze fell to the bandages in Kairi's hands. "Worry about yourself a little."
They were bloody where her eyes had been, and Kairi touched a hand to her left eye. It was dry, but blood caked the sides. On the edges of her vision, little white-out spots lingered.
Stare into the light too long and you'll go blind.
Kairi noticed Lightning's arm and the bleeding gashes that were no longer there. "You're healed. But how?"
"So're you, kid."
Sure enough, Kairi pulled her knees to her chest and noticed her injuries were completely healed.
"You can thank them."
Three short women stood to the side behind Lightning. Red, green, and blue, just like the lights Kairi had seen just before she'd passed out. The green-clad woman rushed to Kairi's side with a warm cloth and began dabbing the dried blood from her eyes.
"Oh, thank you," Kairi said when the woman was finished. She pushed the covers off herself and swung her feet over the edge of the bed to stand. "Who are you?"
The red-clad woman stepped forward. "Hello, dear. I'm so happy to see you're well again. I'm Flora, and this is Fauna and Merryweather." She indicated the women in green and in blue, respectively.
"Apparently, they're fairies," Lightning said.
"Wow, real fairies?"
"Of course we're real!" Merryweather said. "You're the one who's not from around here, Missy."
"Merryweather!" Flora said, frowning. "That is no way to talk to our guests!"
"Girls, girls!" Fauna stepped in between the squabbling fairies. "Please don't fight. We have more important matters to discuss."
Flora gasped. "Oh dear, we do!"
Merryweather scowled and crossed her arms, but she obeyed and ceased bickering.
"You're a Princess of Heart, aren't you?" Flora asked.
"Yeah, that's right. How could you tell?"
"Your heart is pure, child, just like Princess Aurora's. We can tell."
"Hey, isn't that the one we have to find?" Lightning asked. "Do you know where she is?"
"Well, yes, Aurora's here, but—"
"But she's trapped!" Merryweather said. She shed blue fairy dust in her excitement. "We've got to help her!"
Kairi rose from the bed. Someone had removed her chainmail and shoes, and the dirt floor was cool beneath her toes. "Lightning and I are here looking for Aurora. If she's in trouble, maybe we can help. Tell us everything, please."
Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather shared a heavy look. There was fear there.
Lightning crossed her arms. "Well?"
Flora sighed. "Ever since Aurora returned to us from Maleficent's clutches, things haven't been quite right here. A plague descended on our world, a horrible affliction from which none were safe. We only escaped because of our magic."
"Yeah, we saw it. Those thorns killed a man in front of us. It was a cruel way to go," Lightning said.
"Those vines ate his heart," Kairi said. "They turned him into a Nobody and a Heartless."
"They didn't look like the ones we've been fighting. They were a hell of a lot stronger."
"Yes," Fauna said sadly. "The Nobody you faced is called a Dragoon. It's a very high-level Nobody that we've seen appear in this world only recently. It commands the lesser Dusks and Creepers."
"And the Heartless was an Invisible. They're awful! They disappear and cut down people from the shadows, like ghosts. Ooooh, I can't stand them!" Merryweather balled her small fists and scrunched up her face.
"We almost didn't survive them," Kairi said. Her clothes and Lightning's were worse for wear even though their wounds had been healed. She still felt the sting of failure, like she'd cheated death instead of beating it fair and square.
"But we did. That's all that matters." Lightning had her arms crossed as she leaned against the right-most wall of the small cottage near the fire.
"Yes and no," Fauna said. "It's good that you overcame them, but such a pyrrhic victory comes with consequences."
"What do you mean?"
Kairi stared at her hands. She was still exhausted, and Merlin's warning echoed in her ears. The white patches were fading from her vision, but she message was clear. This was the same feeling she'd gotten after beating the Jabberwocky. It was empty. Cold.
A small hand found hers, and Kairi met Flora's caring gaze. "You used your light to defeat those creatures born of darkness, but it cost you dearly."
"I know." She lifted a hand to her eye. "I can feel it."
"You might think light is 'good' and darkness is 'bad,' but in reality, light and darkness are two halves of a whole. The brighter the light you shine, the darker the shadow you cast. Conversely, the deepest shadows are drawn to the purest light. Too much darkness and, well, you've seen what can happen. But too much light—"
"—and I could go blind," Kairi interrupted. She let her hands fall. "I think I get it now."
"You'll be all right, dear," Fauna said, managing a smile. "Your heart is pure. Light can't destroy you like it can the rest of us. But you also attract the darkest shadows wherever you go. It's the same for Aurora."
"You can't use your light to fight the darkness anymore," Merryweather said. "If you do, you just might die one of these days. Or at least go blind for good."
"Then how do I fight it? We wouldn't have stood a chance back there."
"You must find another way," Flora said. "You must learn to become strong without relying on the light. It will only distract you from the truth in the end, and you don't want that, do you?"
"If it's strength we need, then I think I can manage that," Lightning said. "But those things were in another league. We need some new tricks."
"Oh! Well, we're happy to help with that. Of course, we'd like your help in return to save Aurora," Flora said.
"What happened to her? Why is she trapped?" Kairi asked, relaxing a bit now that the topic had shifted from her.
"Oh my, it's just terrible," Fauna said. She went to the stove and put on a pot of hot water to boil, lost in thought and worry.
Merryweather sighed, exasperated, and began to pace. "Basically, Roxaura's got Aurora chained up in her own castle. The nerve! Ooooh, when I get my wand on that witch, she'll be sorry for sure!"
"Yes, she showed up here a little while before Aurora returned, and we helped her. The poor thing was all alone in the world, and she reminded us so much of our dear Aurora," Flora said. "When Aurora returned to rule, Prince Philip was so happy. We all were. But Roxaura wasn't as thrilled. She became jealous of Aurora and Philip's love, and it consumed her."
A whistling sound from the stove indicated that the tea was boiled and ready to drink. Fauna fussed over cups and spilled a bit of scalding water on the hot stove. It sizzled, and Kairi remembered how the Dragoon's blood had sizzled under the heat of her light. She fought to keep the sudden wave of nausea at bay.
"Sounds like this Roxaura's just a bitter old hag. All because she doesn't have a boyfriend?"
"Yes!" Merryweather said. "She's killing people with her darkness because she can't have what Aurora has! Oooooh, the conniving little—"
"Merryweather!" Flora said, outraged.
"Tea! Would anyone like a cup?" Fauna asked. She didn't bother waiting for anyone to accept and handed out cups of the steaming stuff anyway.
Kairi warmed her hands on her teacup, lost in thought. "So, she just wanted to find love? And since she couldn't, she's fallen to darkness?"
Fauna sighed. "Yes, that's exactly it. You see, Roxaura wasn't a bad person, not when we met her. She was sweet and curious and full of hope, like any normal young lady might be. But even the purest intentions can run afoul if the heart is denied what it wants most."
"That's ridiculous. Unrequited love is something almost everyone in any world experiences at some point in their lives. To curse an entire kingdom over it is beyond pathetic," Lightning said.
"Hm?" Flora extricated her wand from Merryweather's grasp and returned her attention to the conversation at hand. "Oh, but that's not quite it, you see. Roxaura's not like other girls."
"She's a Nobody, isn't she?" Kairi said.
All eyes turned to the young Princess, whose expression was solemn and sad as the truth of her words hung heavy in the room. "Aurora's Nobody."
"Why yes, that's right. How did you know?" Flora asked.
"Fantastic," Lightning grumbled. "It's Looking Glass all over again."
"Roxaura doesn't have a heart, but she's a part of Aurora," Kairi said. "We have to rejoin them to end the plague. It's the only way."
Flora and Fauna exchanged worried looks, and Flora sighed. "I don't know much about all this, but it seems like you know what you're doing. Can we count on your help?"
Lightning pushed off the wall and clenched her fists at her sides. "If that's how we can free Aurora, then I'm in."
"Excellent!" Flora clapped her hands together. "Now, about that assistance against the forces of darkness I mentioned before. Hold still, please."
Merryweather and Fauna drew up to her sides and held out their wands. Kairi and Lightning remained still as the three fairies worked their magic. A burst of fairy dust and light illuminated the cottage, and Kairi closed her eyes to its effects. The light died down in a matter of moments, and Kairi gasped.
Lightning's white outfit was replaced by sleek, black armor and red capes at her hips. Her sword was longer, and it shone with a silver glint under the firelight. Kairi's tattered pink outfit was gone, and in its place she wore armor of her own. Her arms and hands were covered in silver to her shoulders, where the armor spiked into wicked points to protect her face and neck. Plated boots and greaves covered her legs, and thick, red straps bound the grey and black skirt and armored top she now wore.
"Whoa," Kairi said, admiring her covered hands. The armor appeared durable, but it wasn't as heavy as it looked.
"Your new clothes are imbued with magic," Flora explained. "You'll be able to withstand physical and magical attacks much better, and any spells you know will become more potent. I hope it will aid you in your quest."
Lightning examined herself, spinning a bit. "Not bad, fairies. Not bad at all."
"I don't like it," Merryweather said.
"Oh?" Fauna said.
Merryweather ignored her and pointed her wand at Kairi. "Make it blue!"
Fairy dust transformed the red of Kairi's clothing to a deep navy color.
"What? No, that's much too bleak," Flora said. "Make it red."
Once more, Kairi's clothes changed color, this time to their previous crimson hue.
"Now girls, let's not do this again," Fauna said, lowering the other fairies' wands. "You know what happened last time."
Kairi laughed, and everyone fell silent. "Oh, sorry, it's just... I guess it's nice to laugh sometimes."
Lightning put a hand on Kairi's shoulder, and Kairi looked up at the older woman. "You ready, kid? This won't be easy."
Kairi summoned her keyblade. "Yeah. And I won't cut any corners this time."
"Fine. Let's get this over with."
Deep within the Morning Keep, a young woman sat upon a throne of rose marble. Her auburn hair fell in thick waves about her shoulders, and the crown atop her her head did not glisten despite the waning moon's light. Her subjects sat before her, kneeling and petrified. Thorny vines shackled them in place in their pews, drawing blood and life as they screamed in silence. Their eyes watched the young woman on her throne, awaiting her commands. Some were glazed over, merely reflective and unseeing through the veil of death, but many remained alert, stubborn and strong-willed.
She found no joy in looking upon them, even though they were here for her. Even though she'd put them there. Even though her power grew as they atrophied. No warmth, no happiness. Just a hallowed throne with hollow subjects. A kingdom of nothing and a Queen of no one.
"Don't look so down, Roxaura. It's such a lovely night. You wouldn't want to spoil it with a frown, now, would you?"
Roxaura jerked at the man's voice in her ear. She was on her feet in an instant, her hands thrust before her in defense. Black flames licked her fingers, itching for something to burn. But not him. She could not burn him.
She'd already tried and failed.
Luxord grinned and pulled out a deck of cards. He began to shuffle. Roxaura followed the cards with her sharp, green eyes. She'd never much liked games of chance and luck.
"Look at you on your throne with your crown and jewels. Such a beautiful queen you are, wanting for nothing."
"Please," a voice said somewhere, weak and frail.
Luxord chuckled and gazed skyward. "And your subjects certainly hang on your every word."
Roxaura glanced askance at her moribund subjects. If she looked hard enough, she could see herself reflected in their frozen eyes. "What do you want now?"
Luxord circled the throne, shuffling his cards over and over and over. "How cold you are. And here I came to check up on you like any good friend."
"You're not my friend."
He grasped her chin between his fingers in a painful grip. Roxaura recoiled, but he moved faster than the eye could see. His cards fell about them and pitter-pattered as they hit the floor.
"That's right. You don't have friends," Luxord said, his tone low and feral. "You don't have family. You only have me."
Roxaura shook with rage. "I have time."
Luxord guffawed from his gut. She could smell something sour on his breath. "And with all that time, you still haven't found what your heart desires." He paused and raised his eyebrows, a caricature of surprise he did not feel. "Oh wait, you don't have a heart."
Roxaura released the bitter rage inside and propelled him away. Luxord flew across the throne room and slammed into the opposite wall nearly fifty feet away. The plaster and stone brick underneath cracked on impact, leaving a small crater outlining his form. And still, he laughed.
"I will have my heart!" Roxaura's hands glowed with dark energy.
"Whatever helps you sleep at night." Luxord dusted himself off, as though colliding into a stone wall at inhuman speed was nothing to cry over. "Although, at the rate you're going there won't be anyone left for you to share it with if you do get it."
He grinned, and before Roxaura had a chance to blast him again, he summoned a dark vortex and stepped into it. Roxaura ran her hands through her silken hair and pulled. Her hands came away threaded with hair, bloody at the roots where she'd yanked it out. A scream died in her throat, fizzling to nothing but a croak of frustration and black hatred. A soft clink against the marble floor drew her attention, and she rounded on the offender.
"This is your fault."
Roxaura advanced on her prisoner, shackled in irons and chained to the wall. Her crown was cracked and splattered with a bit of blood that had spread to her matted, golden hair. Dark eyes glared back over the gag keeping her silent, but there was no hatred there; only pity.
"I'm like this because of you!"
Roxaura dug her nails into her own fine dress over her heart and drew black blood. It stained her pale fingers, fingers so delicate and regal just like hers. Even their faces were similar, perfect. Beautiful. But Aurora was flesh and blood, hope and love, and Roxaura was just empty. A husk. No heartbeat met her searching fingers no matter how much blood she drew. How she longed to dig her nails into Aurora's heart, have a taste for herself. But Luxord forbade it. Aurora was pure, a Princess of Heart.
But Roxaura was Queen.
"I can't take your heart," Roxaura said. "I can't rip it from under that pretty dress." Her eyes traveled skyward. "But I can still break it."
Aurora followed her Nobody's gaze up, and the look in her eyes changed. Roxaura noticed, smelled it. Aurora began to struggle.
Roxaura lifted her hand over her head, and black blood ran down her fingers to drip onto her pretty, porcelain face. A beautiful lie. Above, Philip did not put up much of a fight anymore. The vines that suspended him from the ceiling by the puncture holes in his princely skin swayed just a bit, like a human chandelier. It wouldn't be long now. The vines throbbed with his heartbeat, his blood giving life to fleshy roses as it drained from his face. Hollow eyes, even beaten and close to death, remained open and watching, angry. His lips cracked as he sucked in precious air.
"You can't break true love," he said with great effort.
Roxaura gritted her teeth, and ghost fire bloomed from her bloody hand. "Watch me."
She squeezed her hand into a fist and Philip convulsed. His eyes rolled back in his head and he coughed. The roses shook in anticipation, drawing more from him. Behind her, Aurora made a racket tugging at her restraints and trying to scream through her gag. It came out sounding like a wounded animal, useless and dying. Roxaura released Philip and he wretched, but nothing came out. Still, he refused to succumb to sleep.
"If I can't have it, then why should you?" Roxaura whispered to herself. "Why should anyone?"
Her hand was sticky, and she was overcome with a sudden desire to wash herself clean. Preserve the image. Perfect the mask. The cards Luxord had left only worsened the bitter emptiness inside, and the room was suddenly asphyxiating. She hurried out of the throne room to escape the feeling, leaving Philip and Aurora to gaze at each other in their silent misery.
"I love you," Philip managed. His lips cracked with each syllable, but they shed no blood. There was little left to give.
Aurora wept and shook her head, bade him be silent lest he sap his remaining energy. Surely help would come soon. An army, allies, even a kind-hearted passerby. Anyone. Surely the world could not be this cruel. Surely even a Nobody could have the heart not to force such a fate onto the kind Princess and her handsome Prince. Surely this was not how their fairy tale would end.
"I'm sorry." Philip's eyes fell closed, and his shoulders slumped under the force of gravity.
No one came.
Barely half a day of rest was not ideal for a battle of any magnitude. Rest, Lightning had learned early on, was her greatest weapon against any enemy. People got sloppy when they tired or hungered, and that was when they made mistakes. Hot baths, a hearty meal, and a few hours of sleep were more than she'd had back in her home world, Cocoon, when she'd fought to avert the end of days. But on Cocoon, she had also had an entourage of allies blessed with professional skills, extraordinary powers, and insider information. Here, it was just a teenaged neophyte and three squabbling fairies who'd shrunken themselves to bite-size, all the better to buzz in Lightning's ears.
"Clear!" Kairi called.
Lightning abandoned her thoughts and rammed her electrified sword through the skull of a rather large Dusk before it had the chance to devour her arm. The new armor had done wonders for Lightning, not only providing sturdy defense but also helping to focus and greatly amplify her Thunder spells.
"All together now, girls!" Flora said.
The three fairies ganged up on a bumbling but menacing Heartless and managed to subdue it. Lightning jogged to them and assessed the situation for further threats.
"Lightning," Kairi said. "There're a few more thorn victims up ahead. If we're lucky, they won't all change."
It had taken the better part of the morning and afternoon to make it this far. From the fairies' cottage in the glen, Lightning and Kairi had hacked their way to the castle ramparts and, with the fairies' help, lowered the drawbridge across a dried up moat. The courtyard ahead was exposed and dangerous, especially without the cover of night. Lightning had been torn between waiting for dark and pushing ahead. Even exposed in daylight, there was nowhere for the enemy to hide, either.
Kairi's armor boasted a few splotches of black blood, but nothing alarming. She was getting more comfortable with the sword, and Lightning nodded her approval. If this Roxaura was anything like Caelix had been, Lightning was sure she and Kairi would have their hands full bringing the monster down. Every little bit helped.
"Kairi, are you hurt?" Fauna asked, buzzing close to her face.
Kairi nearly crossed her eyes trying to see Fauna, who was no bigger than a little green leaf. "I think I'm okay, but thanks."
"She's fine, Fauna. These are small potatoes," Merryweather said.
"Well, they're a little tougher than that," Kairi said.
Lightning ignored them and peered around the edge of the main gate to the courtyard. Several human forms stood frozen in place, former palace guards enervating under the weight of swollen, bleeding vines. She counted five in the vicinity, but there could be more. As soon as they approached, they would know the scope of the threat, but they would also lose any element of surprise. Above, that grey castle stood tall and solemn, its purple flags and banners flapping in the summer breeze. Somewhere inside was the Princess they needed. Lightning took a deep breath and braced herself.
"Come on. No sense in waiting around for them to come to us."
"Wait!" Flora said. "We'll use magic."
"No. The three of you can only take on one target at a time."
"Then you help them," Kairi said. "You've got magic."
"And what're you gonna do? Charge in alone? I don't think so."
"I'll be fine. You'll cover me, right? Maybe we could even split up—"
"No," Lightning interrupted. "Absolutely not."
Kairi look surprised, but it soon melted into look of quiet determination. "I trust you, and your magic. Your lightning's never let us down before."
Serah had once asked Lightning when they were just girls if she thought there were other worlds out there.
"Of course there are," Lightning had said with confidence. "If we know about Gran Pulse, there're probably even more worlds beyond it, too."
Serah had accepted this logic without question, as she was wont to do. But her next words stayed with Lightning throughout the years.
"Maybe, in another world, we exist, living different lives. Like reflections, or echoes. So no matter how far you wander, you'll always find the people you love right there with you."
It was silly, a little girl's pretty dream of comfort and the familiar, but it had stuck despite Lightning's insistence on never needing such platitudes. A part of her wondered if Serah was right. Looking at Kairi, it was easy to believe. She was so much like Hope, awkward and ungainly and naive, but so brave and strong-willed and passionate. Lightning had perceived Hope to be a burden initially, a little boy running scared after losing his mother and becoming an outsider, just like her, but she'd been wrong. No matter how hard a pace she set, he followed and grew stronger, even shouldering her weight when she couldn't bear it alone.
"Why Lightning?" he'd asked her long ago.
"Lightning." She summoned thunder sparks to her hand and watched them dance. "It flashes bright, then fades away. It can't protect. It only destroys." She closed her fist and dispelled the illusion.
Kairi put an armored hand over her closed fist, her expression unreadable but not unkind. "Stop making excuses. Even if you think your magic's ability to protect is a lie, then just reject that perception. If you work hard enough, you can make it true. I know you can do it."
Lightning was speechless for a moment, and a part of her wondered if this was all a dream. If she was actually in stasis dreaming the world away. But Kairi's hand was heavy in hers, unwavering. How could someone so small, so vulnerable and exposed, have more strength than a seasoned veteran of countless battles?
Lightning smirked and shook her head.
"What? Did I say something wrong?"
"No, you just remind me of someone I know. He's very precious to me."
Kairi smiled a little.
"Hello, earth to the peanut gallery!" Merryweather said, buzzing between Kairi and Lightning. "If you're finished, we've got a problem!"
The inner gates to the castle were opening, and dark tendrils slithered out. Lightning stifferend. Kairi was already moving, and Lightning swore.
"Kid, hold up!"
Cover abandoned, they stormed the courtyard and caught up with the three fairies in time to see who had come to welcome them to the castle.
"Luxord!" Kairi said.
The blond man chuckled. Shadows undulated at his feet and in the air around him, as though he was just smoke and mirrors and not really there. "Princess, you look well."
Lightning drew her sword and began to advance. This time, he wasn't getting away. Words were unnecessary.
"Ah, ah, ah~" Luxord said, wagging his finger at Lightning.
The shadows at his feet warped and twisted, and short Heartless in soldiers' armor rose up from the depths, blocking Lightning's path. Without stopping, she slashed at the nearest one and sent half of it flying back toward Luxord's feet. Its blood spilled in an arc with its trajectory, and pooled when it landed. Luxord didn't bother sparing it so much as a glance.
"A female knight?" a woman's voice said from the shadows behind Luxord. "How interesting."
A young woman stepped into the courtyard and stopped a short distance from Luxord. Her dark blue gown melted into the oily darkness that followed her, punctuated only by the bright green of her eyes, almost glassy. Lightning didn't have to know her to understand that she was some kind of royal presence. Her association with Luxord meant she was probably Roxaura, the Nobody responsible for all the trouble Lightning an Kairi had gone through to get here.
"I'm not a knight," Lightning said. "I'm a soldier. We're not so noble about showing mercy to damsels in dresses."
Roxaura laughed and the shadows danced around her. "Such arrogance. You must have a strong heart to support such delusions of grandeur."
"Are you Roxaura?" Kairi demanded. "Where's Aurora? What've you done with her?"
"It's rude to jump straight to business."
"I'm not here to talk to you. If you won't tell me, then I'll have to force it out of you."
"You're too late," Roxaura said, grinning. "Aurora's as good as dead. Now that her true love has fallen into depravity."
"Hey! What'd you do to Prince Philip, you mean old witch?" Merryweather shouted.
Flora and Fauna each pulled her back by the arms to keep her out of reach of the enemy.
Kairi paled. "Depravity? What're you talking about? Answer me!"
Roxaura stopped smiling and clenched her fists. Her bright eyes burned with a searing hatred Lightning had never seen before. "What is it about Aurora? Why does everyone want to save her? She doesn't deserve it. She's nothing."
"Sounds like you're bitter," Lightning said. "What's the matter? Jealous of Aurora? Is that why you're doing all this? Talk about pathetic."
Something changed in Roxaura and she turned her full attention on Lightning. She took a step forward. "How dare you. You have no idea who I am or what I've done."
"Sure I do. You're the real nothing here, not Aurora. You're a Nobody. Only a monster would torture all these innocent people to death and hold an entire kingdom hostage. You're just a spoiled brat throwing a temper tantrum because you can't have what you want."
Luxord laughed, deep and husky. "Oh, my dear, don't take it so personally. The truth is cruel, and you're just so transparent." He approached Roxaura, who was shaking with rage, and leaned in close to her ear. "So wrap yourself in pretty lies. Enough layers and you'll become solid, too."
"Hey, get away from her," Kairi said.
Lightning didn't have time to wonder at Kairi's misplaced concern. The air around Roxaura popped and boiled, shimmering with heat. Something was changing, and Lightning had a feeling it wouldn't be pretty.
"That's it," Luxord cooed. "You don't have a heart, and you'll never have what Aurora has. You'll never have love."
"Stop it," Kairi said. "Leave her alone!"
Luxord ignored her. "But you have something better. Swallow that bitterness, all that sweet hatred, and then you'll have what you want most."
Roxaura ran her hands over her face and hair, slowly at first, but her movements became jerkier and more frantic. To Lightning's horror, she was ripping her own skin with her sharp nails. They hadn't been so sharp before. Her hair had also not been long enough to touch the ground before.
There is a distinct moment of time, no longer than a second or two, in which the ordinary becomes extraordinary. A thing is just a thing, harmless and illuminated, but with the passing of a shadow or a glance askance, even just a quick one, it returns an image of distortion, something not quite right. The thing has become something else, its otherness growing at a rate unseen in nature, cancerous. The thing is no longer just a thing, and eyes can no longer be trusted.
Until that second passes and it hasn't faded. And you realize that a dream doesn't feel like this, doesn't taste or smell like this, rotten and musky with a hint of sweet honey to lure the senses. And the thing before you has become monstrous, and you wish you were dreaming because all it takes to go back to that safe place is to open your eyes.
But Lightning's eyes were already open, and the nightmare had only just begun.
The darkness behind Roxaura coiled and tightened, moving as one, snake-like entity. A tail. The embroidered fabric of her dress was not embroidery and lace and sequins, but rippling scales that reflected none of the diminishing sunlight overhead. Her nails kept growing until they were longer than her hands. As the shadows seeped into her queenly skin and poisoned it, only her bright, green eyes remained, suddenly more suited to their visage now. The true face.
"Oh my god," Kairi said, her voice cracking.
Lightning adjusted her grip on her broadsword, forcing herself to look away from those shimmering eyes lest she see herself in them.
"What is it they say about a woman scorned?" Luxord said with a sneer.
"You monster," Kairi said, her keyblade shaking in her grip. "What have you done to her?"
"Me? Nothing she wouldn't have done herself. The heart wants what it wants, and when it doesn't get it, well... Even a Nobody isn't immune to the concept of a broken heart."
"But Nobodies don't have hearts."
"No." Luxord eyed the creature Roxaura had become, a glint in his eyes that hadn't been there before. "We don't. That's precisely the problem, you see."
Roxaura shook with emotion, but she produced no words. Instead, she screamed. Banshee-like, her wail echoed throughout the courtyard and beyond, perhaps reverberating throughout the entire world. The handful of thorn victims in the courtyard began to shudder and warp as they woke up.
Luxord retreated to the castle. "I really must be going now. A queen's affairs are hers alone."
"Wait!" Kairi ran after him before Lightning could stop her.
Roxaura was faster. She lunged at Kairi, who threw up her keyblade just in time to block. It proved unnecessary.
An enormous bolt of lightning zigzagged in between Kairi and Roxaura, flashing bright and hot before igniting the ground in a conflagration of light and ashes. It lasted only the blink of an eye, but it was enough to throw Roxaura off-kilter.
"Go after him!" Lightning shouted. "I'll deal with her."
"And you three, too. Get moving!"
The three fairies buzzed about, frantic. Kairi hesitated only for a moment and nodded.
"Come on," she said to the three fairies before disappearing into the castle.
Lightning watched them go, and Roxaura righted herself. Having failed to stop Kairi, she now attempted to give chase. Lightning ran at her and slashed, forcing Roxaura to lunge away from the entrance to the castle back toward the courtyard. She hissed and spit through incisors longer than Lightning's pinky finger. Whatever she was, she wasn't human anymore.
"You'll have to get through me if you want to get back to your throne," Lightning said.
Roxaura glared with those venomous green eyes and gurgled unintelligibly. Behind her, the thorn victims had begun to transform into their Heartless and Nobody counterparts. Lightning took a steadying breath in anticipation of the hard battle ahead of her.
"Sorry, kid," Lightning said. "Lightning can only destroy in the end."
She touched her fingers to the brand on her chest, feeling it sear even beneath layers of fairy armor. Her curse rose to meet her will, ever faithful and greedy. Red ribbons of magic seeped from between her fingers, a blood sacrifice to summon the terrible power foisted upon her. For Serah, however, Lightning had sworn to bear this curse and see it through to the end.
"But I'm damn good at obliterating by now."
Roxaura's spawned Heartless and Nobodies converged to aid her, and the small army advanced, intending to overwhelm Lightning in one go. They would never reach her in time.
"Odin!" Lightning shouted.
The heavens opened up and her terrible curse rained down on the battlefield.
Kairi sprinted through the empty halls of Aurora's castle in search of Luxord. Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather tailed close behind.
"Girls, let's split up and search for Aurora and Philip," Flora said. "We must find them before it's too late!"
Kairi didn't argue with them and kept going. To her surprise, however, Merryweather still buzzed alongside her.
"Aren't you going?"
"My sisters will be fine. It's you I'm worried about. I can't let you fight all alone."
"Thanks, Merryweather. We'll find them and get rid of Luxord once and for all."
The pair raced down a long hallway until they reached a white marble staircase in a room with high-vaulted windows. Outside, the sun was dipping below the horizon and night was settling in. Kairi began to climb the stairs, but Luxord's voice stopped her.
"You've gotten stronger," he said, his voice echoing everywhere and nowhere at once.
Kairi looked around. "Show yourself, you coward."
Luxord laughed. "You sound so much like him." He materialized at the top of the stairs and peered down at Kairi over his nose. "I suppose it's true about memories. They live inside us, sleeping forever if they must, until we want them back."
"What're you saying? Where is he?" Even though she didn't know his name or face, Kairi knew Luxord was speaking of the boy Kairi was fighting for. He knew something, and her desire to find out was almost painful in its intensity. "Tell me!"
"He fought valiantly, I'm told. He wasn't afraid of losing his memories, his heart, everything he holds dear. And all for you. I suppose that's what they call 'true love', isn't it?"
Kairi's breath escaped her, like she'd been punched in the gut. Luxord's words were so nostalgic that she knew they were true, even though they sounded so foreign to her current state. Her body quaked with the echoes of a memory she'd long forgotten, an emotion she thought she'd never known, and yet it was there, just out of reach.
"I'll never understand it," he went on. "Roxaura tried, and look what happened to her. What is it about the heart? It's a greedy little demon. People like you are born with hearts, and yet you spend your whole lives searching for the heart of another because yours alone isn't enough for you. You can't bear to be alone, even when you know there are others without hearts of their own. It's disgusting, such a level of conceit."
Kairi balked at his candor. There was no bitterness there, unlike with Roxaura. He was more like a curious bystander, an amoral scientist watching rats eat each other alive and wondering if there was a way to harness that hunger.
"There's no point to having a heart unless you can share it with others. That's what makes you human. It's not arrogance, it's compassion. I think even a Nobody can understand that. You were human once, too."
There was a momentary pause in which Kairi was sure he would lose control the way Roxaura had earlier. But he burst out laughing, and she paled. Luxord was one of those people whose laughter was far more horrifying than any threat or realization of violence.
"Forgive me, but that's pure sophistry, every word! And you make it so easy."
"Hey! What're you talking about?" Merryweather demanded.
"As if any of it even matters. Hearts, they're just a construct. A burden. My Organization wants them so much, they're willing to sacrifice countless lives for just a taste. But who cares? This existence is so much fun. Why should I ever wish for something else? The heart is just a tether. I'd rather be free to make my own luck."
"Who are you?" Kairi asked. "What do you want?"
"Oh, don't mind me. I'm just the dealer. This is your game, Princess. Well, yours and Naminé's."
"What do you know about Naminé?"
Luxord feigned surprised. "Oh! Oh dear, that's right, she didn't tell you, did she? About this little game she's playing with you. And with him. Every coin has two sides."
Kairi shook her head to get his riddles out. "I don't understand."
"No, I suppose you don't. And isn't that odd? I do wonder why Naminé didn't tell you why he's sleeping. Or why he forgot all about you. She didn't even tell you why her, did she?"
Whatever he was doing would not work. Naminé could be trusted, of that Kairi was certain. More certain than she'd ever been about anything in her life. "It doesn't matter. She's helping him, and so am I. Nothing you can say will stop either of us."
Luxord chuckled and threw his hands up. "And that, Princess, ought to be your primary cause for concern. The heart wants what it wants, no matter how pure. The question is, how far would you go to satisfy it? How far would Naminé go? Maybe as far as Roxaura's gone?"
There was something in his words that had wormed its way into Kairi's resolve. A seed of doubt, however small, that nagged like a phantom itch, a whisper in her ear she couldn't quite hear. "I don't understand."
With a wave of his hand, Luxord summoned a dark vortex and stepped back into it. His smile was gone. "You will."
When Kairi saw that he was retreating, she raced up the stairs to apprehend him. But she was too late, and she grasped at empty darkness where he once stood. It disintegrated between her fingers until there was nothing there at all.
"Yes, run away, you craven fool!" Merryweather spat at the empty space where Luxord had stood only moments ago. She crossed her little arms and glared.
"It's okay, Merryweather. We still have to find Aurora. Luxord's not our biggest problem right now."
The little blue fairy broke out of her trance and flitted around in front of Kairi's nose. "You're right. Let's go. The throne room is up ahead. If that witch was using it, maybe we can find some clues there."
They continued down the hall at the top of the stairs, leaving Luxord's murmurings behind. His cryptic warnings, however, followed Kairi deeper into the castle, riding the wind behind her like a second shadow.
Odin, the physical manifestation of Lightning's curse, roared at the darkening night sky. In the form of a magnificent steed armored in silver and gold, each beat of his hooves upon the cobblestone courtyard sent a clap of thunder hurtling at the enemy Heartless and Nobodies. Between the two of them, Lightning and Odin decimated the opposition. All but Roxaura.
At some point, Lightning had stopped calling the royal Nobody by name in her mind.
The thing left over was a poltergeist, the embodiment of spite. It feasted on the flesh of its fallen minions, devouring their blood and tearing them apart, searching for the heart it didn't have. Lightning could barely watch.
But more than whatever battle-fury she felt toward the creature that had enslaved this world and brought suffering to its people, there was a deep-seated resentment for the force that had driven Roxaura to this primal state of devolution. The heart was a wicked labyrinth of strange emotions and nonsensical purpose at times, and to get lost in its neverending twists and turns was surely a frightful prospect.
Lightning sheathed her sword. "Odin, let's end this."
The stallion deity answered her call and rushed to meet her. Roxaura shrieked and conjured magic. Lightning swore and made a run for it, sensing impending doom. She didn't make it.
A terrible ice spell the likes of which Lightning had never seen before struck her with the force of a hundred blades and sent her careening into the castle wall. Brick cracked under the impact, and something warm trickled down Lightning's forehead. It stung her left eye, blinding her.
She hadn't even taken a direct hit. Odin stood on shaking legs, crumbling before Roxaura. His golden armor cracked and ice crystals snaked among the plates, sinking deeper. Lightning tried calling out, but the words barely escaped her cracked lips. Odin fell, and the spell was broken. She was alone.
Roxaura scraped at the ground where Odin had been, but not a trace of the steed was left. He had returned to the brand on Lightning's heart, the ever faithful curse that bled her inside until the next time. Frustrated, Roxaura tore up the ground in search of the heart that should have been there. Lightning coughed and struggled to her feet. She had to end this now or face death. Walking was an ordeal, and the pain bordered on the unholy. She wiped the blood from her eye with the end of the cape at her hip, though her vision remained blurry. Roxaura appeared as a gangly, dark creature, her limbs just a little too long to be comfortably human. The shadows permeating her skin had long ago seeped into her eyes and blinded her to everything but primal need.
Nearby, Odin's great halberd lay discarded on the ground, crackling faintly with electricity.
Lightning choked. It should have disappeared with Odin, but here it was. She chanced a look at Roxaura, who had just about given up the hunt for Odin's heart and turned her sights on Lightning. Swallowing the pain and the throbbing in her head, Lightning sprinted toward the halberd and dove to grab it. Roxaura shook with rage and screamed again before taking off after Lightning at a speed those too-long limbs should not have been able to reproduce. Lightning skidded on the ground, her armor sparking in her wake, and swiped the halberd. She was back on her feet with one fluid roll, and Roxaura was nearly upon her.
"Curses can be broken," Kairi's words echoed in Lightning's swimming head.
With a battlecry, Lightning turned the divine halberd on a charging Roxaura and reached deep down to the ugly core of this curse that had ruined her life. Thunderbolts licked at the axe head of the halberd, popping and jumping in every direction searching for something to scorch. Lightning charged and collided with Roxaura.
The explosion was deafening, like being at the ground zero of a bomb raid. Lightning had been in such a situation before, but never quite like this. The magic burned her skin through her armor, electrocuting her blood with mini explosions in her veins. All of it rushed to her fingertips and through the halberd to Roxaura. Blood magic, something dark and deceptive.
The ringing stopped and reality picked up where it left off. Roxaura slumped forward, her clawed hands wrapped around the halberd's handle. The weapon's point, a wicked blade, had pieced clean through Roxaura's chest and charred a thick section of her abdomen. Lightning panted, her adrenaline fading as the pain slowly crept back in to nurse her into oblivion.
The shadows receded. Roxaura's nails retracted back to their finely manicured points, and the rot lifted from her skin. Those green eyes opened once more, having lost their edge of madness in the face of defeat. Odin's halberd had shredded Roxaura's chest, and had she been a normal human with a beating heart, she would have died instantly.
Roxaura coughed and spilled sticky, black blood on Odin's halberd, thick with spiteful poison. Dazed and empty, her eyes met Lightning's. "I feel nothing."
Lightning's throat clenched tight enough to impair her breathing. A terrible thirst clawed at her throat, threatening to spill, but it did not.
"Why can't I feel anything? I just wanted to feel it, just once."
Roxaura slumped and Lightning kneeled on the ground, willing the pain away with little success. Above, pale moonlight made the blood on the ground glisten around the two women, much like the billions of lights in the sea Lightning and Kairi had encountered at the start of all this.
"You'll never feel anything but bitterness as long as you make others suffer," Lightning said at last.
"Ah," Roxaura gasped, spewing up more blood. She closed her eyes and breathed softly. "But at least that part was mine. All mine."
Lightning sighed and tried to catch her breath, unwilling to think about this anymore. She had to find Kairi so they could reunite Roxaura and Aurora. With a heave and no warning, she yanked the halberd from Roxaura's chest and sent her toppling to the ground in a heap. But Roxaura barely made a sound, numb to pain and pleasure alike. Lightning almost felt sorry for her, but the remains of the innocent people strewn about the courtyard covered in thorns obliterated that fleeting insanity. Dismissing Odin's halberd, Lightning bent down and shouldered Roxaura's limp body, ignoring the charred flesh rubbing against her armor. Biting her tongue to help stave off her body's pain, Lightning trudged toward the castle in search of Kairi.
Merryweather buzzed away from Kairi to the opposite end of the throne room. Startled, Kairi followed, but the grisly view slowed her down. People, wrapped in bleeding vines, sat in long pews as though enraptured by an invisible entertainer, their eyes frozen open. None of them moved, and Kairi was inclined to keep her distance, remembering the last time she got too close to one of these poor souls. Eyes followed her as she walked forward toward the throne, but the room was silent. Eerily so.
Kairi caught up to Merryweather, who was blasting blue magic. Aurora was chained to the wall, gagged. Her blue dress was ripped in places, and old blood clung to its fabric, as though it had been painted upon her ages ago. Kairi covered her mouth in disgust and pity. How long had she been chained up here like an animal?
"Aurora, it's okay, you're safe now," Kairi said, blinking back any tears that threatened to fall. Something acrid in the air was stinging her eyes.
"Help me with these chains," Merryweather said. Her blue magic was steadily burning through one thick link.
Kairi examined the shackles, unsure how to go about freeing Aurora. Striking them was dangerous, as she might injure the captive Princess in the process. She also didn't know any magic that could help with this. There was one thing she could do, however.
"I'll heal her. Maybe she can tell us what to do."
Merryweather made a sour face but complied. Kairi raised a hand to Aurora's forehead and let the Cure spell flow from her fingertips. Seconds ticked by in silence as a soft, green light ran over Aurora's body, weaving through the rips in her dress and healing old wounds.
"Can't you go any faster?" Merryweather asked.
"Just a minute."
Aurora moaned and blinked her eyes as she came to.
"Aurora!" Merryweather buzzed in the Princess's face. "You're awake!"
Aurora was dazed as she recovered from her injuries and looked between Merryweather and Kairi. But her moaning soon turned to tempered gags. She struggled against her chains, eyes wide and fearful.
"It's okay, we're getting out you of here." Kairi removed Aurora's gag.
Aurora tried to speak, but she only managed to cough at first. Merryweather used her magic to help soothe Aurora's throat and help her speak.
"Hey, calm down, you're safe," Kairi said.
Aurora gasped for breath. "No. She turned him."
"What're you talking about?"
"Philip." Aurora's gaze shifted around the room. Tears filled her eyes. "Oh, Philip. You have to stop him before—"
A screeing sound, like knives against stone, sounded from somewhere in the room. Kairi froze but dared not turn around.
"Oh god," Aurora whispered. "Oh god."
Silence. Kairi slowly backed away from Aurora. The room's other occupants still sat in the many pews running the length of the room, all of them unmoving and quiet. Too quiet. Something moved in the far left periphery of Kairi's vision, and she whirled.
No sound at all.
Just a weight that became heavier with each breath Kairi took, each one building up a bitter taste in the back of her throat. She swallowed and regretted it, nearly gagging. Her hands began to sweat in her armor.
Looming. Something was here, and if she turned around she might see it. A thing not yet made real except in her imagination, its claws rending the air just behind her, tempting her to turn. She swung her keyblade in an arc and sliced empty air.
A heartbeat and a held breath. That floating tingle in the pit of her stomach that said too late.
"Above you!" Aurora cried.
Kairi fell backward to the floor and threw her keyblade up just a shred of a second too late. Two katana slammed into her with a force so powerful, Kairi was sure she'd broken a wrist just catching the blow. Prostrate on her back, she looked up into the face of the being that had beaten her down. A pair of eyes stared back at her, pupilless, through a slitted helmet. The creature was stark white, bloodless, and worst of all, it was utterly silent. So quiet it seemed to suck the sound right out of her, too.
"Kairi!" Merryweather screamed.
Kairi grunted and let the Nobody—a Samurai—push her down toward the stairs. She used the natural incline to roll its body weight and hers. Back on her feet in an instant, she was almost too late again to catch the Samurai's next attack. With all the skill of a seasoned swordsman, the Nobody slashed at Kairi with twin katana, relentless, inhuman. Kairi gasped for breath as it tried to back her into a corner. Beating it head-on, sword for sword, would be impossible like this. Looking around while she parried the Samurai's blows, she searched for anything that could help her. All that was here, however, were the filled pews.
Pushing the Samurai back on one last parry, Kairi used it as a spring scale to jettison backward and to the right, where she stepped on the armrest of a pew and launched into the air. The move caught the Samurai by surprise, but it recovered quickly and moved to catch her mid-air. Kairi brought down her keyblade with frightening determination, and the Samurai caught it between its crossed katana.
It was just what she'd been hoping for. Swinging her legs over her head, she used the crossed katana as a jumping off point and hurtled over the Samurai's head. It slashed her arms as she flew, but the fairy armor protected her. That was to say nothing of the bruises she would likely have, though.
Landing on her feet in a crouched position, Kairi spun on the balls of her feet and thrust forward, her keyblade in the lead. The Samurai was just turning around to block her, and it was a risk she would end up paying for. It brought down one katana just as Kairi struck it in the lower abdomen from below. The katana sliced her in the lower back through joints in her reinforced clothing. Kairi cried out, but her momentum drove her forward, pain and all.
The keyblade ripped through the Nobody's middle and came out the other side. The smell of burning necrotic flesh made Kairi's throat burn. Skin popped and smoked as her keyblade tore through the Samurai's susceptible flesh. Black blood ran in rivers down its legs, evaporating over the keyblade. And they fell together.
Kairi slumped to the floor while the Samurai fell backward, twitching. The flesh around the keyblade wound melted and began to sizzle. Kairi panted, and the wound in her back stung as blood dribbled down her backside to the cold stone floor.
"Kairi!" Merryweather flew to her side, erratic as a hummingbird.
Kairi didn't answer her, instead focusing on catching her breath and her bearings. The rancid stench of the dead Nobody was too much to handle, so she forced herself to stand upright and jerked the keyblade free. The movement disturbed her wound, tearing the skin open further, and she hissed.
"Hold still, stubborn girl!" Merryweather said.
Something cool and soothing caressed the laceration on Kairi's back, and she exhaled sharply, leaning her weight on the keyblade for support. "What's that?"
"I can't heal you fully without my sisters, but I can stop the bleeding so it doesn't get worse," Merryweather explained in her usual clipped tone.
"I'll tell you, I've never seen a princess move like you do. It's downright strange, like a circus performer. I can't imagine how you learned such a ridiculous trick."
"Guess I'm not much of a court princess, huh?"
A few moments more and Merryweather's magic ceased. Kairi turned around, pleased that the pain had receded to a tolerable intensity. The bleeding had also stopped.
"You're more of a knight. The noblest kind."
Kairi looked around for the blue fairy, but she was already fluttering back to Aurora. Kairi said nothing to that, but something in Merryweather's words had struck a chord with her. It felt good. She bit back a smile.
Aurora was silent, her dark eyes wide as tears fell freely, like she'd seen a ghost. The look stopped Kairi in her tracks.
"Aurora?" she asked.
The Princess said nothing as she continued to look straight ahead, unseeing.
"Just hold on and I'll have you out of here in a jiffy," Merryweather said. "Oh, where are Flora and Fauna, anyway?"
Any joy Kairi had been feeling a moment ago died a slow and painful death as realization sank in. "That Nobody..."
Aurora choked on a sob.
Kairi looked around the room, searching. Finally, her eyes alighted on a massive puddle of dark blood near the throne. Her gaze rose, dreading what she would find but unable to look away. Hanging from the ceiling was a tangle of thorny vines, engorged with blood and flowering, but they were empty. Ripped apart.
She was too late. Aurora had watched Kairi kill her beloved, the monster he'd become thanks to Roxaura's spite.
"Aurora I... I'm so sorry," Kairi said, shaking with the threat of tears.
"You mean, Prince Philip is dead?" Merryweather said.
Flora and Fauna zipped toward the party in a hurry. Behind them, Lightning trudged through the door carrying an immobile Roxaura and trailing black blood behind her.
"Lightning," Kairi said, relieved to see her in one piece.
Lightning dragged Roxaura to the group and propped her up at the foot of the throne. Roxaura was breathing, and her eyes were half-lidded, but she said nothing, like she was in a trance of some sort. When Lightning saw the look on Kairi's face, she tensed.
Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather worked together to free Aurora from her chains.
"It's the Prince," Kairi said. "We were too late."
Lightning followed Kairi's gaze to the remains of the Nobody on the floor a short distance away, and her expression turned grim. "Shit."
Freed at last, Aurora slumped to the floor on her hands and knees, shaking with grief. The three fairies reverted to their normal sizes and helped her up, offering words of condolence they knew would make no difference. But they had to try.
A warm wind at the nape of Kairi's neck made her whirl. It was the same feeling she'd gotten just before Philip's Nobody attacked, a phantom presence not quite there.
"His Heartless is still here somewhere," she whispered to Lightning.
The two women were so focused on peering into the shadows in the room that they failed to notice the puddle of blood near the throne begin to ripple. Spindly hands rose up from its imaginary depths and pulled a body up, black as night. Lightning heard it first and spun around.
"There," she hissed, already advancing.
The Neo-Shadow pulled itself up and made a clicking sound that made Kairi's skin crawl. She gripped the keyblade with both hands and ignored the burn in her back as she prepared for the next fight. With Lightning's help, she backed the Heartless into a corner against the wall.
"You wanna do the honors?"
"Yes," Kairi said. "I'm sorry."
Kair raised the keyblade and prepared to strike, but Aurora's cry stopped her.
In the distraction, the Heartless slipped past Kairi and Lightning, slithering toward Aurora and the three fairies with alarming speed.
Lightning cursed, and Kairi turned to run after it, afraid for the others who were unarmed.
"Aurora, no!" Kairi said, wishing she were faster, lighter, able to protect this woman when she couldn't protect the man she loved.
Aurora did not heed the warning, however, and stood her ground. The Heartless skidded to a halt just shy of her, its elongated claw raised in a menacing threat. One twitch and it would rip Aurora to shreds. But it waited.
"What the hell?" Lightning said.
"Oh, Philip," Aurora said.
Kairi never finished her words. Aurora reached for the Heartless and pulled it close in a tight embrace. A blinding flash of light filled the whole room, and Kairi shielded her eyes. It was warm and gentle, like a summer breeze, but Kairi couldn't stand to look into it with the naked eye.
And then she was running, her feet weighted and her keyblade long gone. Through darkness, carving a path, and reaching for something in the distance just out of grasp. The darkness snapped at her heels, trying to trip her, sink her into the abyss, but she pressed forward to a lonely shadow just ahead, wallowing and reaching for her, too.
"This time, I'll protect you," she heard herself saying. An old echo, another time and another place.
She lunged forward, desperate, and the light blocked her view just as her fingers brushed another's, barely. It subsided in a matter of moments, and the room came back into focus. She was back in the present, keyblade in hand, and reaching for nothing at all. No phantom fingers clinging to her like a lifeline and no dream voice ringing in her ears—or was it a memory? She hissed and raised a hand to her aching head.
The Neo-Shadow was gone. In its place, Aurora embraced a tall man in tattered clothing, and he held her close as though his very life depended on it.
"Prince Philip!" Fauna said.
Flora wiped a few tears. "It's a miracle!"
Kairi looked up and, sure enough, there was Philip holding his beloved close, crying into her hair and shaking. Aurora pulled away and wiped his tears, smiling through her own.
"Aurora," he said. "How—?"
"I promised myself that I would never let you go," she said. "No matter how far you fall."
Philip smoothed back her hair, still matted with traces of her own blood, but the look in his eyes saw only the vision of the woman he'd fallen in love with in a dream made real. Careless of their audience, he pulled Aurora into a fierce kiss through their tears. She wrapped her arms around his neck and found the strength to laugh into the kiss.
"I'll be damned," Lightning said. "Maybe some fairytales really do have happy endings."
"That's no fairytale," Merryweather snapped. She tried to hide a shy smile. "That's true love."
A soft groaning sound drew Kairi's attention. Roxaura, still slumped against the foot of the throne, lulled in a liminal state between life and death as she drooled black blood down her chin and onto her tattered gown.
Philip released Aurora and she kneeled down before her fallen Nobody. She reached out a hand to brush Roxaura's sweaty bangs from her face, but she was met with a stinging slap on the wrist.
"Don't touch me," Roxaura spat.
Droplets of black blood splattered across Aurora's face, and she wiped them away without a word.
"You've done unspeakable things," Aurora said in a tone that sent shivers down Kairi's spine. This was no dream-swept maiden waiting for her prince to save her. This was a queen ready to right the wrongs inflicted upon her kingdom and her people. "And you have to answer for them. I won't let you continue this reign of terror any longer. You've lost, Roxaura."
"How dare you speak my name." Roxaura lunged forward, gripped Aurora by the shoulders, and dug her nails into her skin. "How dare you act so high and mighty. You spoiled, rotten trash. Everything you are, everything you have was given to you freely. You've never had to struggle or fight for anything. Don't you dare speak to me as though we're equal!"
Lightning moved to pull Roxaura back, but Philip was faster.
"It's all right." Aurora gripped Roxaura's wrists in a firm hold and tried to hide the pain she felt from the nails cutting her skin.
Philip hesitated as the two of them glared at each other. Kairi and Lightning hung back, but they were ready to intervene at a moment's notice.
"You're right," Aurora said. "I'm lucky to have been born a princess. And I was lucky to find love, too. But no one gave it to me. I had to fight to keep it, just like I fought for it today when you tried to kill Philip."
"You selfish bitch. You have no idea what it's like to feel this way!"
"Of course I do." Aurora hauled Roxaura to her feet and staggered a bit with the added weight. "You're the other side of my heart. I feel everything you feel."
Roxaura shook with anger. "You lie."
"No. I just never gave into the poisonous words of people like Luxord."
"Kairi, finish this," Lightning said.
Kairi nodded and stood behind Roxaura.
Aurora smiled sadly. "You'll see what I mean. Sleep now."
"No, wait, you can't—!"
Kairi jammed the keyblade through Roxaura's chest, opening up the hole Lightning had made earlier, and pierced Aurora's heart on the other side. Veins of light travelled away from the puncture, burning away the charred remnants of Roxaura's battle with Lightning. They crept to her extremities, consuming her, and in a flash she was gone, as though she had never been there at all. Aurora reached for something to keep her from falling, and Philip caught her by the arm.
"Are you all right?" he asked.
Aurora took a few steadying breaths, and Kairi watched her carefully. She moved like someone drunk on sleep, but she smiled and nodded. "I will be."
"Oh my! Look!" Fauna said.
Kairi and Lightning turned toward the pews where Fauna was skittering about between the people only to behold yet another miracle. The thorny vines withered before their eyes and the color returned to the victims' faces. Fauna zapped the vines with her magic, and they shriveled up and fell to the floor, where they turned to ash. The blood roses shed their petals and turned black as they lost their vigor. About two thirds of the room's occupants slumped in their chairs and came to, groggy, after a long sleep.
"They're alive!" Flora said, beside herself with joy.
"Princess Aurora?" a short, plump man said, rubbing his eyes. "Good heavens, you're all right!" He ran toward Aurora and took her hand, kissing it. "Oh, praise be! I'm so happy you're all right!"
Aurora smiled through her tears. "And I'm glad to see you're all right, Duke. It's over now."
The reunions were heartfelt and poignant. Not everyone remembered the details of what had happened, but all were overjoyed to see their Princess alive and well. Queen now, to be precise.
Not all of them survived, Kairi noticed with a heavy heart. Some of them had wasted away for too long before help could arrive. Yet another reminder of Roxaura's torment. Among those who had perished were Aurora's parents, the previous King and Queen.
The next two days were spent recovering. More survivors of Roxaura's terrorism wandered back to the palace now that they were free. Some reunited with lost families and lovers, others found themselves alone in the world, their loved ones having perished. All were welcome and sheltered by the new King and Queen, who made rebuilding their priority. The Kingdom of Morning would see many changes, but it would face them with the light of a new dawn on the horizon. One free from the darkness Luxord and Roxaura had brought with them.
The first night after the battle, Kairi had collected Aurora's light for use in reviving Serah and the boy she couldn't remember. Aurora listened, enraptured, to Kairi's tale.
"I think what you're doing is incredibly noble," Aurora said. "It's easy to spout poetry, but to actually fight for what you want takes a special brand of courage."
Kairi smiled, but it didn't reach her ears. "I'm just trying to do the right thing."
The sound of her own voice haunted her wherever she went, vowing to protect the very boy she was searching for now. The memory had alighted upon her like an idea, always having been there, just looked at the wrong way until now. Watching Aurora pull Philip from the deepest abyss had set off something inside Kairi, something achingly familiar. This quest would not be the first time she saved the boy she couldn't remember. And yet, his name and face still eluded her, as did his place in her heart.
Aurora watched Kairi under the muted candlelight of her private chambers, a knowing look in her eyes. "This boy you seek. Do you love him?"
Kairi dismissed the keyblade and rubbed her eyes. Try as she might, she could not find an answer to that question. "I don't know. I don't remember."
"Love isn't so easily forgotten, Kairi. Even when there's nothing left to you but cold and dark, it'll always find you."
Kairi sighed. "I wish it were that easy to accept. I could die out there at any moment. And then what? What if I never remember him?"
Aurora put a hand on Kairi's shoulder. "The heart remembers, even if the mind does not. Sometimes, all it needs is a little reminder. I'm sure wherever he is, he wishes he could remember you, too."
"Yeah, I like to think that."
Aurora walked to the window and drew back the curtains. Outside, the courtyard was aglow with firelight and starlight and moonlight. People danced and sang, finally remembering how to be happy after so much pain and blood.
"There's a place here called the Twilight Sea. At night, it sparkles with the light of a billion fallen stars."
Kairi joined Aurora at the window and looked into the distance. "Lightning and I saw it on our way here. It was beautiful. I've never seen anything like it."
"The fairies told me a legend about it, a story all little boys and girls in my kingdom hear when they're young. There are many worlds out there, as we both know, but they're disconnected, existing in different times, different places. The Twilight Sea, as the story goes, is no sea at all, but the sky of another world. That's why you can't see where the sea ends and the sky begins. They're one and the same."
Kairi looked up at the stars above, so much like the night sky on the Destiny Islands. One sky.
"That's a beautiful story."
"Yes. And who knows? Maybe there are people a thousand worlds away looking up at that same sky, wondering the same thing. In that way, we never really lose each other. Even if we forget, or if we think we're alone, the sky connects us no matter how far into darkness we wander."
There was a knock on the door and Philip poked his head in. "Aurora, come join the festivities. This is a night to celebrate."
Aurora smiled. "Of course. Let's go, then?"
Kairi nodded. "Let's."
The waves were cold between her toes, but in the heat of summer the chill was refreshing. Billions of tiny lights lapped at the shore and stretched forever, it seemed, until it was impossible to tell where the sea ended and the sky began. Looking at it now, Kairi could believe Aurora's tale as though she'd known it all along. The bottle she held in her hand was stopped tight, the letter inside carefully folded.
"Thinking of you wherever you are.
We pray for our sorrows to end, and hope that our hearts will blend..."
"This time, I'll protect you," Kairi said.
The seascape offered no answer but the ceaseless beat of waves against the sand, but the silence didn't bother her. Kneeling, she placed the bottle among the sea foam and watched it drift away with the tide and its watery stars toward the infinite horizon beyond where the eye could see.
"Message in a bottle? Not the most reliable form of communication," Lightning said.
"He'll get it. Somehow, someday, it'll reach him."
"You sound certain."
Kairi filled her lungs with the scent of night and stars and the magic here that could transcend the ages and spaces between here and there.
"One sky, one destiny."
"So, ready to track down the next Princess of Heart and her psycho alter-ego?"
Kairi pulled her shoes on and stifled a laugh. "We don't know that all of them are in the same situation as Aurora and Alice. Maybe everyone else is just fine."
"You sound certain," Kairi said, mimicking Lightning's earlier deadpan.
"I am. That thing the fairies said about bright lights casting the darkest shadows—it's a warning we better heed. I didn't have a lot of problems finding Merlin, but ever since I started travelling with you, it's like we're a moving target for the Heartless and Nobodies."
Kairi stood up and gave Lightning her full attention. "I noticed that, too."
"And these other Princesses are like you, honey attracting flies. Whatever we find in the next world, you have to be ready for another fight to the death. Think you can handle it, kid?"
They averted their eyes to the seascape once more. The lull of the ocean was calming, but not because the storm was over. It was just beginning.
"Yeah, we can."
"You sound certain."
Kairi waved her hand and performed the spell to summon a corridor of light over the water. She stepped forward, Lightning right behind her.
Lightning hid a smirk and they stepped into the portal, looking ahead to the next world's dawn.
In a white room devoid of light, Luxord saw stars.
"I realize we don't have hearts to guide us, but I'm pretty sure this isn't the way to treat a beloved comrade."
Saïx glared up at the insufferable man wriggling in his chokehold. There was no moon and no stars visible from inside this place, but that celestial maiden's call penetrated the walls of the complex and sang to his blood. Just give in, it whispered. Saïx wanted nothing more, but the consequences of killing Luxord could be more of a bane than a blessing. It didn't mean he couldn't make the man bleed a bit. Even a Nobody could detect such basic, animal feelings.
"You're an incompetent prick. That's two Princess Nobodies you've squandered. Xemnas didn't put so much effort into cultivating them for you to see them dismantled like paper dolls."
Luxord wheezed, but he still had that stupid grin on his face. "Paper doll is an appropriate way to think of them, I'll give you that one."
Saïx growled and threw Luxord clean across the room, where he slammed into the far wall with a grunt. "I knew it was a bad idea to let you meddle. Your games are interfering with the Organization's goals for Sora and the Princesses of Heart."
Luxord coughed and pulled himself up. He held out a hand in a placating gesture as though he were truly at Saïx's mercy. More games. There was something about Luxord that Saïx despised with an irrational intensity, like a tick or other blood-sucking vermin devoid of any purpose but to pester and annoy and infect with disease.
"All right, geez. You're such a poor sport, Saïx. Besides, if I remember correctly, our priority is keeping the Princesses alive and separated. I'm hurt that you'd accuse me of jeopardizing the Organization—"
"Don't twist my words. You know exactly what you're doing messing around with the seventh Princess. It's a waste of time and energy. If she dies—"
"She won't. You know, it's pretty hard to kill an extreme being. Light or dark, it doesn't matter. I mean, look at Xehanort. Now that's one exquisite piece of I-don't-even-want-to-know if I ever saw one."
"I'm not here to converse with you. Stop risking the Organization with your puerile tactics or the next hand you draw will be the Dead Man's."
Saïx turned to leave, and Luxord's amusement faded.
"Why not have a go yourself, then? If you think you can do better."
Saïx paused in the doorway. "If you mean cleaning up your messes before you have a chance to create them, then worry not. I'm already handling it."
Saïx left before Luxord could say anything further. He tried to ignore the man's whooping laughter that followed him out, as though blotting it out would distract him from the fact that he'd been suckered into this game long ago.
Next stop: Agrabah. Reviews are very much appreciated! :)