As the Keyblade pierced him, and Roxas felt his will being overridden by the draw of his -- his other's -- heart, Roxas saw a woman standing behind Sora. She was watching him, keen, piercing eyes fixed on his face. She smiled at Roxas, and instead of the endless anxiety of what would happen to him when he merged with his other, Roxas felt a moment of...happiness?
Her lips moved, and Roxas thought he could make out the words. "Good luck."
He wasn't certain any more whether this was a beginning or an ending, but he wasn't afraid any more.
Larxene glanced up, wondering if she were done fading. It didn't seem like she'd come to a destination, only an endless plain of darkness. She scoffed; it was a lot better than most of what she could have imagined.
She stood, brushing off her coat. She might as well figure out where she was, and make some sort of plan. Maybe the others were lurking around here.
She froze, and scanned her surroundings again. This time, she saw a creature that looked quite a lot like Marluxia.
"Oh, thank god you're here," Larxene said. "I thought I was done for."
The figure, towering over Larxene, only stared. After a moment, it dug into its robes and removed a small egg timer. There was no sand in the top, even when the creature shook it vigorously. At last, it nodded, and turned to her.
YOU'RE LATE, it said flatly.
"If you wanted me to be on time, you should have told me," Larxene retorted. "Honestly, have you got anything rattling up in your skull?" She hopped up just enough to rap her fist against her companion's skull. When it did only rattle hollowly, she froze. She looked at the figure more carefully. It was thinner than Marluxia, and its scythe didn't have the elegant flairs that the other Nobody favored. It had the professional edge of a blade that needed no extravagance, and had only one purpose.
She scowled at the creature. "What sort of joke is this? How can I be late to my own death?"
YOUR EXISTENCE EXTENDED BEYOND THE TIME ALLOTTED TO YOU, the figure replied. IT IS NOT UNHEARD-OF, BUT...DISCOURAGED. REGARDLESS, WE BOTH HAVE OTHER APPOINTMENTS TO KEEP.
"Appointments?" Larxene demanded. "What appointments to I have?" A needle of fear wormed its way through her chest. "What's going to happen to me?"
I'M AFRAID THAT WOULD BE TELLING, the figure replied. BUT NOW THAT YOUR UNFORTUNATE SEPARATION HAS BEEN RECTIFIED, IT WILL HAPPEN TO ALL OF YOU.
"Separation?" Larxene asked, and her chest contracted, almost painfully. "No," she whispered, reaching up to where her heart would be, were she a whole being. Pain lanced through her, and she winced. "No, I got rid of it!" she screamed. "I don't want it anymore!"
The figure turned, its cowl falling away to reveal a grinning skull. IT IS YOUR HEART; I BELIEVE YOU ARE STUCK WITH IT, WHETHER YOU WANT IT OR NOT.
Death bent down and picked up the head of the broken scythe. SOME PEOPLE HAVE NO SENSE OF CRAFTSMANSHIP, it mused.
IT WAS NOT THE TRADITIONAL GAME, NO, BUT IT SEEMED TO MAKE HIM HAPPY.
NO, I DIDN'T SEE MUCH POINT, EITHER. Death tossed the broken blade aside and walked away, his foot crumpling a trio of cards resting on the dull, endless floor.
Luxord grinned over his cards; it seemed appropriate to do so, given that his opponent did nothing else. Other men might have been unnerved, but Luxord had played against some of the most skilled poker players in the world, and some of them didn't even have faces.
"I call," Luxord said, finally.
The skeleton glanced down at its hand, and then up at Luxord. I BELIEVE THERE HAS BEEN SOME ERROR, it said.
"Come, now, no backing out just because you don't like your hand," Luxord chided. "Let's see it."
Death shrugged, and laid out its hand, and Luxord stared.
Five grinning Jokers looked up at him.
"Do you play?" the woman asked, pointing to Demyx's sitar.
He smirked. "Of course I play! Not that it matters much anymore," he muttered.
The woman shook her head and ran a finger along the sitar's neck. "It's not nothing," she said kindly. "Not if you liked doing it."
Demyx swung the sitar away from her shaking his head. "How could I? I didn't have a heart."
"But you still played," the woman said.
"Yeah," Demyx replied, rubbing bashfully at his neck. "I remembered playing, so I thought it'd help me remember what it was like having a heart."
"Would you play for me?" the woman asked.
Demyx stared at her, perplexed. "Don't you have a schedule to keep?"
"Nothing that can't wait a few minutes," she said. "Truth be told, I suspect my next appointment wouldn't mind my running a few moments late." The smile was so charming Demyx replied in kind without thinking about it. "So, will you play?"
"Sure. What do you want to hear?"
"Something you loved," the woman said.
Demyx raised his fingers, but stilled them before they touched the strings. He doubted any of the songs he'd played as a Nobody counted. She wanted to hear something that meant something to him -- which seemed an impossible demand.
And then, he recalled a melody from the mists of his tattered memory. His fingers moved over the sitar's strings, and the woman smiled as soon as the first notes echoed through the instrument.
When he finished playing, Demyx felt...lighter, somehow, and the woman was smiling brightly at him, almost blindingly.
"They say the most beautiful music is played from the heart," the woman said. "And that was...wonderful. A fitting swan song."
"What?" Demyx asked, but the woman was already stepping forward, and he could hear the sound of wings...
"Who are you?" Axel asked. The woman standing above him shook her head, smiling.
"Do I have to tell you?" she asked.
Axel chuckled. "I guess not. I couldn't possibly survive that."
The woman pursed her lips, glancing away from Axel. "That's not exactly true," she said. "People have choices, sometimes, and you chose to come here."
"I wasn't going to let him die!" Axel snapped, finally scrambling to a half-crouch, at least.
"I never doubted that," the woman said. "But I wondered if you were planning to soldier on without a heart. I think out of all of them, you might have had a shot."
"What do you mean?" Axel demanded.
The woman reached down, and helped pull Axel to his feet. "I don't think it's possible to do all you've done and not have a heart." She gave him a winning smile, and something in Axel's chest contracted.
"But I don't."
The woman's lips curled upward in a smirk. "I never said you did. But do you wonder what would have happened if you'd spent a lifetime acting as if you cared? Maybe it would have been the same as if you'd had a heart. Maybe not. I would have liked to see it."
Axel shook his head. "Maybe. But it wouldn't have been worth it."
The woman shrugged. "That's your choice. Luckily, so is what comes next..."
Saix was standing in the middle of the endless desert, staring at the moon -- or the memory of the moon -- when Death found him.
"I was wondering when you would show up. This system seems remarkably inefficient," he said.
I SEEM TO MUDDLE ALONG, Death replied.
"Well, if it works," Saix said, not letting his gaze waver. He continued to stare upward for several minutes before Death spoke again.
PEOPLE ARE GENERALLY CONCERNED ABOUT THEIR FINAL DESTINATION AT THIS JUNCTURE, Death said.
That drew Saix's attention, as he glanced sideways at Death, eyebrows raised in surprise. "I assumed this was my final destination. I don't have a heart, after all; it seems the normal rules wouldn't apply."
THINGS OFTEN HAVE A WAY OF WORKING THEMSELVES OUT, Death said. IN THIS CASE, RATHER NEATLY.
"Oh," Saix said quietly. "Then what does happen?"
I'M NOT THE IDEAL PERSON TO ASK ABOUT POST-MORTEM EXPERIENCES, Death offered. SUFFICE TO SAY, NO ONE HAS EVER LODGED A COMPLAINT.
Saix laughed despite himself, and the burst of emotion seemed to wake something in himself, a moment of joy, as well as an ache through his chest. It must have been because he hadn't laughed since...
Saix ducked his head, feeling anxious at the question. "I don't suppose you know if...well, my...friend..."
A NUMBER OF YOUR COLLEAGUES HAVE ALREADY PASSED THROUGH, Death said. ALTHOUGH, GENERALLY SPEAKING, MOST OF THEM DIDN'T SEEM THE TYPE TO MAKE FRIENDS EASILY.
"His name was Axel. Or..."
LEA. The skeleton's eye sockets flickered briefly. I DOUBT, IF HE IS ALIVE, THAT HE WILL BE MUCH LONGER.
"Oh," Saix murmured. "Is there...can I...people can be reborn, right? Can't we be...friends again?"
THIS ISN'T A GROCERY, Death chided. YOU'RE GOING TO HAVE TO TAKE WHAT YOU GET.
Saix felt his heart sink (and he'd forgotten what that felt like). When the spectre of Death seemed disinclined to add further comments, Saix set his shoulders and looked Death in the eye.
"Fine. If you aren't going to help me, I'll take it up with whoever you're sending me to," he threatened. "I'll make them take me to Lea, wherever he is. And then..." He smirked at Death. "Then we'll see what happens."
WELL, I HOPE THAT TURNS OUT WELL, Death said, waving a hand. Saix could feel himself beginning to fade almost immediately. Now that he had a plan, it didn't seem so bad to fade. After all, he was certain wherever Lea was, he'd be happy to see him.
Zexion stared blankly at the creature standing before him. He scowled at his book before snapping it closed.
"I suppose you expect me to believe you're Death."
MOST PEOPLE DRAW THAT CONCLUSION, YES.
Zexion scowled further. "Well, you're wasting your time, here. I don't have a heart; there's no point to taking my soul on to whatever afterlife you've planned for me."
I SEE, the creature mused. MIGHT I ASK WHAT YOU PLAN TO DO, IF YOU'RE NOT PLANNING TO MOVE ON?
"Study!" Zexion snapped. He waved his hand at the endless plain surrounding them. "This can't possibly be all that's in this world, and I'm sure I can learn everything there is to know about it, given enough time."
AH, the creature replied. WELL, IF THERE'S ONE THING YOU'LL HAVE PLENTY OF HERE, IT'S TIME. I'LL DROP BY FROM TIME TO TIME, JUST IN CASE YOU GET BORED.
The creature vanished, and Zexion, now free of distractions, turned his attention back to the landscape, which seemed to stretch on forever. Bored? He couldn't imagine being bored, not with an infinity to study, and all the time in the world to do it.
Most people wanted to ask her questions, make demands, or even just share a few words with a friendly face before moving on. Not the heavily-built Nobody with the brown hair. When he saw her, he just nodded once and took a step into Death's embrace.
Death sat on the endless plain for some time after she took Lexaeus, as she always did when she found those who seemed to understand and accept without words. Her place was to guide people, and those who understood what was happening made her feel a little unnecessary.
Still, she had seen all other reactions to her, Death mused, pushing herself to her feet. It all came from having people with all sorts of outlooks. She'd feel sad if she stopped meeting the people who got it.
Of course, there was about as much chance of that as of her running out of clients altogether.
Death sighed as the man ran from her. Most people saw sense, but there were also those who thought it was possible to escape her. She'd heard of incarnations who took the time to track such people down, but she was of the opinion that if she waited long enough, everything would work itself out.
Vexen only slowed when he found his way into a dark cavern he'd found on the dark plain. Panting, he slipped through the shadows, wishing for a moment he controlled fire. Still, he'd escaped that creature, and that was all that mattered. Next, he needed to establish his limitations, his powers, and explore escape routes-
A quiet noise, like bone on rock, made Vexen whirl, staring blindly into the darkness.
"Hello? Is someone there?" he asked, hating that a tremulous tone entered his voice. "Anyone?"
When nothing answered, Vexen shook his head. He was imagining things. But when he turned around, he found himself suddenly nose-to-nose with something...terrible.
"Ah," Xaldin said, when he sighted his opponent. "One wonders...is it possible?" He called his lances up, and drifted up from the ground of the endless plain. "I would fight you!" he snapped to the approaching robed figure.
The figure stopped and looked up at Xaldin. There was no actual expression on its face, as it was a skinless skull, but Xaldin thought the creature's pupils had shrunk in fear.
I...SEE, Death said. ARE YOU CERTAIN YOU WOULDN'T RATHER PLAY A GAME FOR YOU LIFE? I'M QUITE FOND OF THE ONE WITH THE HORSES.
"Polo?" Xaldin asked. "No. I would fight you." He wrenched his hand, sending his first lance spinning towards Death. The skeleton barely moved, only lifting its scythe slightly, as if to block Xaldin's weapon. Xaldin smirked; there was no way he could block a lance with the sharp end of a scythe.
And then the lance struck, and two halves of a lance fell to either side of Xaldin's opponent.
NO. CHESS, Death said reproachingly, its blue eyes focused maliciously on Xaldin. IT WOULD HAVE GONE BETTER FOR YOU IF YOU'D SUGGESTED HORSESHOES.
When the smoke cleared enough to see, Death glanced down at her chest, scowling when she saw the blackened hole in her shirt.
"I'm really not the vengeful type," she said, warningly, "but this is really beyond the pale." She stepped aside a split-second before she heard a nearly inaudible 'pop'. The ground next to her puffed, and a divot appeared in the sand. "I can assure you you're just wasting time!" Death called out. The hillocks Xigbar had taken refuge in provided no response, and Death sighed.
She hated doing this; while putting people at ease wasn't her purpose, it made everything a lot easier when she avoided the 'cower, brief mortals' schtick. Still, some people wouldn't be cowed unless you were firm with them.
She closed her eyes and called out her essence. Offhandedly, she blocked a bullet with her scythe even as it appeared.
"I AM SICK AND TIRED OF THIS," she announced. "I HAVE PLACES TO BE, AND YOUR CONTINUED UNWILLINGNESS TO ACCEPT THE INEVITABLE IS BEGINNING TO ANNOY ME."
Another shot bounced off of Death's scythe, and she growled, a deep sound that resonated through the desert.
"THERE ARE FAR WORSE THINGS IN THIS WORLD THAN DEATH," Death said. "I COULD SUMMON MY SISTER. SHE WOULD MAKE YOU WISH I WOULD TAKE YOU, IF YOU HADN'T GONE MAD IN THE INTERIM."
Another shot came, and Death blocked it, breathing evenly as she felt the awareness that came with donning her full aegis gather. She smiled when she suddenly had it.
You couldn't be a proper Death without being able to find any creature that could die. Death usually let that knowledge fade to the background, because it made her more relatable.
But Xigbar was annoying her. She hurled her scythe, and nodded in satisfaction when she heard an aborted grunt. She began walking, slowly, because she knew she had time, and she wanted to give Xigbar a little time to sweat.
When she found him, he was pulling ineffectually on the scythe, which was embedded in his spirit's leg, binding him to the stone. Death bent over him and flicked his forehead.
"None of that," she said cheerfully. "You're not going anywhere until I say you are."
Xigbar's good eye widened. "You're not taking me to..."
"I'm tempted to leave you here for a while to think about what you've done," Death said. "But I doubt that would do much. No, I'm going to send you along to where you belong."
"No!" Xigbar shouted, struggling with his leg. "I won't go! Do you know what'll happen to me down there?"
Death gave him a sunny smile and leaned a little closer. "It can't be any worse than you can imagine, Braig. I can promise you that. And who knows? Maybe you're wrong about where you're going."
It was cruel, Death supposed, to inflict that moment of hope on him. But she was in a very bad mood, which wasn't an excuse in and of itself. It would have to do, though. She could allow herself to be petty once in a while. It wasn't as if Braig would suffer more than he thought he was due, and while she wasn't as put off by arrogance as her little brother, it was begining to get to her. She was going to be happy when this was all over.
There were two figures standing before Xemnas before he died. There were two figures standing before him after he died. The parallel seemed appropriate, somehow, even if the post-mortem attendants made little effort to draw further parallels.
"I suppose you expect me to submit to some form of judgment," Xemnas said haughtily.
The two exchanged glances, and then the smaller one, the girl, spoke up. "That's not really either of our concerns."
YOU SEE, the slender, robed figure said, WE'RE HERE TO SETTLE THE MATTER OF YOUR...DUAL RESIDENCY.
Xemnas snorted. "I consumed Terra's heart. There is nothing left of him to wander the world of Light or Darkness."
The woman shook her head. "But this isn't the Realm of Light, Xehanort. Nor is it the Realm of Darkness. This is the place of accounting, which we can't do with you and him twisted up the way you are. So cough it up."
"And what if I refuse?" Xemnas demanded.
The tall figure gestured with a hand, and a scythe appeared in its grasp. WE WILL FIND IT NECESSARY TO PERFORM THE SEPARATION MANUALLY.
Xemnas rolled his eyes and raised his hands. "Very well. I wouldn't want you to hurt yourselves." It was the work of a few moments to expel himself from the body he had stolen, leaving behind the man's heart, separate from his form. "Does that satisfy you?" he asked belligerently.
The young woman exchanged a glance with her companion before nodding. "Yes, I think that's everything," she said. Without further ado, she faded, leaving Xehanort alone with the robed figure and his long-time host.
"Well, now what?" he asked. "Now am I to be judged? Will you punish me for the darkness in my heart?"
THIS IS NOT A PLACE IN WHICH DARKNESS HAS ANY MEANING. NOR IS IT A PLACE WHERE LIGHT HAS ANY POWER. ONLY THE HEART MATTERS, the robed figure replied.
Xehanort laughed. "So there are no consequences for those who have lost themselves to the Dark? No torment?"
TORMENT? the figure asked. NO. BUT THIS IS A PLACE WHERE ERRANT HEARTS JUDGE THEMSELVES BEFORE MOVING ON. THOSE WHO LOST THEMSELVES TO DARKNESS OFTEN FIND THE NEED FOR ABSOLUTION IN THIS PLACE. THOSE WHO LOST TO THEIR DEMONS OFTEN FIND THE NEED TO CONQUER THEM HERE.
Xehanort raised an eyebrow. "I have no demons. I was never lost."
THAT IS TRUE, the robed figure agreed. BUT YOU ARE NOT THE ONLY HEART BEING JUDGED HERE.
Xehanort spun on his heel, impossibly fast from his lifetimes of combat. But it wasn't fast enough to do more than barely turn aside the first strike from his once-host.
"Hello, Master Xehanort," Terra whispered. "Let's see how you fare without the Darkness on your side." And then the young man, once lost in darkness, continued his assault on his own, personal demon.
I'LL LEAVE YOU TWO ALONE FOR A WHILE. I SUSPECT YOU HAVE A LOT OF ISSUES TO WORK OUT, Death said.