The surrounding peace was almost insulting. After spending another day endlessly wandering the same dirt road, Riku almost yearned for the familiar sight of rising shadows, slashing claws... Anything to break the monotony. When he closed his eyes, his mind wandered back to the door to Kingdom Hearts. The same door he'd abandoned. He remembered the black smoke oozing out from between the cracks... stretching, twisting, swelling, and grasping. His own actions transformed that smoke into a tidal wave that threatened to sweep the worlds into the darkness' depths. So why had he wound up so far from the chaos, plunged into an endless sea of grass and dirt? He couldn't begin to help from here.
Yet with no Gummi Ship, Riku and his friends could only move forward. A few stops to hone in their training, rest, and reflect helped break some of the tension, but when the sun sank away and the stars lit the sky, he wondered if they'd ever break free. At this rate, who really knew? Other than the trees, the grass, and maybe a few bugs, they were the only living things in sight. No signs appeared whenever the path forked, and it wasn't like they carried a map. Thus, in spite of their tranquil surroundings, the odds had really stacked against them.
But after hours of meandering and drowning out Goofy's silly songs, Riku, Kairi, Donald, and Goofy finally came to a stop. They parked themselves at the edge of the road, watching the last glimmers of sunlight fade. And, much like the last few nights, they scooped up armfuls of sticks and twigs, flung them into a pile, and huddled close together. One flick of Donald's staff unleashed a burst of heat. Flames flashed to life, hissing and crackling. At least now they wouldn't catch cold, even if the sky drenched them with rain. But while the others broke into friendly conversation, Riku turned the other way, content to etch circles in the dirt. Circles that sprouted antennae with a brush of his fingers, then beady eyes and claws.
He would've added more, but the sound of Donald's squawky laughter yanked him out of his drawing and back to reality.
"You know, Kairi, you're gettin' pretty good with that fire magic!" He smirked, leaning back on the palms of his hands. "Maybe we oughta start teaching you blizzard, right Riku?"
"Huh?" Riku blinked, slowly turning to face the others. It took a moment for Donald's words to register, and then he placed one hand against the side of his neck. "Blizzard? I guess it's worth a shot, but what's she going to freeze? The grass?"
"Oh, I know!" Grinning, Goofy stood up tall and pulled out his trusty old shield. "One of us could stand real still, and she could try hittin' us!"
"Well, you can count me out!" Donald crossed his arms, letting out a huff. "But go ahead, Goofy. You're the one with the shield, anyway."
"Gawrsh, I guess so!"
At that point, Kairi started to laugh, looking down at the wooden sword hidden among the grass. She shook her head and let out a soft sigh before she got up, took a few big steps and plopped down right next to Riku and Donald.
"You could always take turns, you know." A sly smile crossed her face. "But it's okay. I don't mind training without a target."
"Well, it's a lot easier if you can picture the ice freezing over something." Donald frowned, bringing a hand to his beak. "I guess we could just use Goofy's shield or make a big pile of sticks, but…"
...And they lost him. Letting out a soft groan, Riku flopped down on his back, staring up at the endless array of stars. It was hard to tell how many had vanished over the past week, if any. A few might've blinked out here and there, but so long as some stars remained in the sky, it wasn't a total loss. With the door wide open, the Heartless were probably having a field day across the universe, hunting down as many hearts as they could get their grubby little hands on. Still, even though they were stranded without a Gummi Ship and no reasonable way to get around, they'd still have a fighting chance to fix up this whole mess once they caught sight of Sora again.
It was a promise he'd made even before he beat Ansem, and one he held close to his heart. Letting out a soft sigh, he reached for his belt, where he proudly wore Kairi's lucky charm for all to see. Smiling faintly, he held it up with one hand, fidgeting with it just a little. The others went on talking over target practice, and he picked up something about using trees instead, but for the most part he just ignored his surroundings. Occasionally he'd make a few comments when Kairi or Donald tapped him on the shoulder or leaned right over him, but otherwise he was content to gaze at the stars…
At least until he heard a rustling in the grass from behind. Eyes narrowed, he shot up into a sitting position and peered over his shoulder. The others scurried right behind him, and they all let out a collective gasp.
A strange man approached from a distance, slowly trudging closer with each passing second. Red bandages covered his face, leaving only a trace of dark skin around his mouth and a single orange eye visible. He wore a long, red cape that fluttered with each step, and even as he drew near to the group, he kept a straight face and held his hands behind his back. At the sight of this man, Riku stood up straight and called for his Keyblade. At that, the man laughed dryly, and his lips bent up into a crooked smirk.
"There is little cause for alarm," he said, coming to a halt just a few feet away. "I am no enemy, merely an observer."
"An observer, huh?" Riku sneered, leaning forward with one hand on his hip. "And just why should we trust you, old man?"
"Yeah!" Donald scowled, and his beak bent into a sharp frown. "You look awfully suspicious."
"Do you often use appearances to judge one's moral character?" The man shook his head. "I suppose I could simply leave and let you wander for days, if not weeks on end. However, that would neither benefit you nor myself."
"I guess you're right…" Frowning, Goofy began to scratch his head. "We haven't seen anybody in days, and we were gettin' kinda worried!"
"I wasn't worried." Donald groaned. "And I still don't trust him!"
It was pretty hard to trust a complete stranger, especially one with eerie eyes and such a tacky getup. He looked just as villainous as Ansem, Maleficent, and just about all the other foes they'd faced. Plus, he hadn't given them any straight answers just yet. For all they knew, he could've easily been trying to mess with their heads. So, like Donald, Riku kept a close eye on the man, even as Kairi stepped out in front of the group.
"Guys, shouldn't we give him a chance?" She peered over her shoulder and gave the man a brief glance. "The least we could do is listen."
"Donald, I think she's onto somethin'!"
"Well, I still think he's—"
Heaving a sigh, Riku dismissed his weapon. Suspicious as that guy was, he really was their only lead right now. Giving him a chance to make a case probably wouldn't hurt, as long as they didn't let their guards down. And besides, if he really was an 'observer,' he'd probably know what was going on. They'd never know until they asked, anyway.
"You know what?" he said. "Go ahead, tell us what you want. Not like we've got anything better to do."
"Ah, so you have finally come to your senses." The man lowered his arms to his sides, taking a step closer to the group. "I have come here on behalf of the worlds, and it would be wise to listen carefully, for there is much to cover." He paused for a moment and held out one of his arms, as a swirling mass of darkness materialized just a few feet away. "Of course, there is a time and place for everything. If you wish to escape this realm, I recommend that you follow closely."
"And how do we know this isn't a trap?" Riku rolled his eyes. "First the cryptic message, now darkness… You aren't exactly making the best impression."
"But were you not the one who created a corridor in order to save your friends?"
Just like that, Riku's heart sank like a brick. It did seem kind of strange that he knew about that, but who was he to argue at a time like this? The guy did have a point.
In spite of his doubts, he nodded, turning his attention towards the portal. "Fine, I'll give you that much."
"Then you have little to lose." Slowly, the man turned towards the corridor. "And, should you pass through and find yourself trapped, I imagine that it will hardly deter you. Are you not a risk taker?"
"Nah, I take plenty of risks." Oddly enough, that man's words actually got a laugh out of him. "Guess we'll never know what's on the other side until we jump right in."
Donald continued to silently fume, brow furrowed as he sneered at the man, then the corridor, then turned his gaze up at Riku. Goofy, all the while, looked down at his friend with his brows knit together, quietly muttering something to him that Riku didn't quite pick up. The two huddled together, whispering to one another for a few short seconds before they finally reached a decision.
"Well, I guess it's better than all this walking." Donald sighed, tucking his staff away as he stomped towards the corridor. "But if anything fishy happens, don't say I didn't warn ya."
"Don't worry, Donald." Kairi shook her head, moseying on up to the portal. "If anything happens, I'm sure you can handle it."
"Just because we can doesn't mean we should have to, you know!"
Chuckling, Goofy followed the others with a lopsided smile. "Aw, Donald, maybe ya just need a good night's sleep."
At least they were getting somewhere, even if it involved suspicious portals. Once his friends started moving, Riku hurried along, slipping right into the darkness without a moment's hesitation. While a part of him half expected to end up in the middle of a Heartless trap or thrown into an even greater danger, it didn't take long for him to realize his worries were all for naught. The corridor didn't lead into some mysterious threat; the moment he stepped out, he found himself surrounded by shelves full of books and the occasional statue. Stepping further into the room, he came across a small, square table lined with a couple of chairs and a single candelabra.
But what really stood out in this dusty old library was the duo of chipmunks leaping up and down the moment Riku and his friends appeared.
"Chip, Dale?" Gasping, Donald hurried up to the table, staring at the duo with his eyes wide open. "What's goin' on here?"
"They arrived some time ago after escaping the darkness," said the man as he stepped into the room. "When I caught sight of their ship outside this manor, I took pity on them and allowed them to stay."
"You don't say…" Riku narrowed his eyes, trudging over towards one of the chairs. "That's a pretty huge coincidence. First you find our ship and our maintenance crew, and then you go looking for us? There's something you aren't telling us, old man."
"It is true; there is much to explain." The man slowly approached one of the empty seats, sitting down with a blank expression. "However, now that we are away from that infernal crossroads, we can begin at any time. Perhaps once your friends have taken a seat."
It took a few moments for the others to get situated, mostly on Donald's part. However, once they all took their places around the table, the man leaned back in his seat and began to fill them all in. About time, too.
"Now then," he said, placing his hands on the table, "you are probably wondering who I am and why I have brought you here. To keep it simple, you may call me DiZ. And as for my motives…" He leaned back and chuckled dryly. "I simply wish to negotiate."
"Negotiate what?" Riku leaned forward, tapping his fingers on the table's surface. "If you want us to trust you, we're gonna need some straight answers."
"Ah, but of course." DiZ cracked a crooked smile, looking Riku in the eye. "I am no stranger to manipulation, so I understand your sentiments. If answers are what you seek, then let us start with the state of the worlds. After all, I'm sure you're quite concerned about the overwhelming flow of Heartless…"
Biting his lip, Riku forced himself not to snap back. It was like that guy saw straight through him, and he sure didn't pull any punches. Still, if he knew what was going on, what choice did they have but to listen? In the corner of his eye, he caught a glimpse of Kairi watching him through furrowed brows, while Donald jerked forward, only to get tugged back by Goofy. DiZ continued to smile at this display, continuing his speech without hesitation.
"It is true that the Heartless have run rampant since your failure to protect the worlds. However, they are of little concern." He shook his head. "Rather, you should be wary of a new threat, one far greater than any creature of darkness."
"But I thought them Heartless fellers were tryin' to swallow the worlds!" Goofy frowned, bringing a hand to his chin. "If they aren't our real enemies, then who is?"
"Yeah! We already beat Ansem and Maleficent." Donald huffed, shifting around in his seat. "Who else could there be?"
"Who? Why, Nobody." DiZ gave another dry laugh. "To put it into perspective, let us consider the existence of the Heartless. They are, after all, a result of the corrosion of darkness within the heart, but they lack the bodies and souls of a complete being. Now, surely those empty shells don't merely disappear."
'When the heart casts away the body, where does the body go?' That was the first line in the Ansem report he'd picked up from that man in the black coat. Did DiZ know something about those so-called 'nonexistent ones'? There was only one way to know for sure…
"So, let me get this straight," said Riku, leaning back into his seat. "You're saying these empty shells are a bigger threat than the Heartless. What makes you so sure of that?"
"The key difference between Heartless and Nobodies is simply a matter of wits." DiZ paused, peering at one of the bookshelves. "They are capable of rational thought, but lack the ability to feel emotion. As a result, they feel no remorse for the heinous acts they perform, such as betrayal." It was hard to tell with him looking the other way, but it almost looked like he cringed. Was there something he wasn't telling them?
Kairi sure seemed to think so, with the way she leaned over the table and looked at DiZ with a frown. "It sounds like you know from experience."
It was hard to tell whether she'd hit a sore spot; DiZ tensed up for a moment, but before long he let out yet another laugh, this one almost forced by comparison. Soon enough, he turned back around with a sinister smile, and he placed his hands together.
"I have seen many things in all my years, but none so dreadful as those infernal Nobodies." His smile swiftly shifted to a frown, and he narrowed his visible eye. "It is why you mustn't underestimate them. They have long since formed an Organization and threaten to disrupt the balance between worlds. Unfortunately, I can do little to thwart their efforts, which is why I have turned to you."
It still seemed like this guy was hiding something. If nothing else, it felt like he had some ulterior motive to pit Riku and his friends against those Nobodies in the first place. Like an unspoken grudge… Maybe Kairi was onto something. On the other hand, if they really were a greater threat than the Heartless, they couldn't just ignore his words. Whether or not DiZ spoke the truth, his claims at least merited some kind of investigation. A little recon, maybe.
But first he just needed a little more clarification. "What exactly do you want us to do, then? Take them out, or is there more to it?"
"It would be unwise to merely attack them, though the idea is tempting." DiZ shook his head. "For the time being, I suggest you resume your journey and collect information as you travel across the worlds. You will know the Organization by their black coats, as it is uniform for their group."
Black coats, just like that guy back in Hollow Bastion. Riku's eyes widened, and he reached for the report, skimming it over once again. All the while, the others kept their eyes locked on DiZ, who leaned back in his seat and folded his hands together.
"But wait a second" said Donald, glancing over at Kairi. "We've still gotta work on Kairi's training!"
"Plus, we're runnin' low on supplies!" To prove his point, Goofy dug into his pockets, pulling out a single potion and nothing more.
DiZ chuckled at the sight, resting his hands on the arms of his chair. "Yes, it would seem that you're hardly prepared. Fortunately, there is a town at the end of the forest where you will doubtlessly find both weaponry and supplies. And should you need rest, you are welcome to stay in one of the vacant rooms here."
Riku raised a brow, leaning over the table again. "So you'll let us stay here, huh? And what's the catch?"
"There is no catch. All I ask in return is that you share your findings and, in due time, eliminate the Organization."
All in all, it didn't seem like a bad deal. With their Gummi Ship close by, getting from world to world would be a cinch. Besides, they were probably going to get back to their travels even without this so-called threat looming over their heads. Free room and board was just another added perk in the long run, even if there was still something kind of fishy about this DiZ guy. For now, Riku and his friends could handle a mutual agreement, as long as things didn't get out of hand. If Donald and Goofy didn't agree, well, they could sort that out later on.
After a few moments of quiet deliberation, Riku looked up at DiZ with a smirk. "All right, then. I guess we're in."
People scattered every which way along the streets of Hollow Bastion. Spells flew through the air, crashing into windows, singing doorways and stands, and chilling the cracked pavement to create a slippery mess. Even though the town was in shambles and hardly a radiant place to be, Sora'd managed to catch sight of some people hanging around, gradually making the messy old place their home. He'd hopped from rooftop to rooftop, silently watching Leon and his gang tried to clean up the messes left by all the Heartless that stuck around. They'd even managed to get some kind of security system working… sort of. Sometimes these weird pillars of light would come down and send Heartless flying, but it was a hit-or-miss kinda thing. Not only that, but it didn't exactly stop the destruction going on down below. No, a Heartless defense system was no good against humans. Or people who looked like 'em, anyway.
Sora practically had to scramble around to avoid being knocked back by bursts of white-hot flames, chilled by blizzard blasts, and shocked by powerful electric storms. And the real catch? Most of those attacks weren't coming from the Heartless, but a boy dressed in a black coat who hurried through the streets alongside another boy just a little bit younger. Just who were these guys and why were they making such a fuss? Neither of them attacked any of the people; they always directed their magic at buildings, bits of rubble, and sometimes the ground below. It was like they were trying to scarethe people, but not actually hurt 'em.
There wasn't a whole lot he could do as a Heartless. If he were to step out from the shadows, he'd probably send people running away in fear. After all, he might've looked more or less like his old self, but his inky black body and glowing eyes weren't exactly good for first impressions. Because of this, he continued to hop from building to building, sending down blasts of green fire to melt the ice that spread along the ground. When the two boys' attacks drew too close to civilians, he'd warp around and drag the people to safety. Sometimes he'd try and hit the two boys down there too, but they kept slipping out of the way! If he could just get a bit closer, maybe he'd be able to hit them with a slow spell, but he'd have to be crafty.
Or I guess I could follow 'em, he thought to himself, bounding over to yet another rooftop. By the looks of it, they were headed straight into the Borough, right where Leon and his gang hung out half the time. And if they were going to Leon, then he had to see what was up! They wouldn't go after the head of the restoration crew unless they had some other motive.
With a goal in mind, Sora scurried behind the two boys, landing in the shadows behind one of the shops and swerving behind any people that crossed his path. He rushed up one step of steps, past a duck in a silly top hat and down another set, leaving streaks of darkness in his wake. Then, when he finally caught up with the two boys again, he leaped up onto one of the ledges and crouched down nice and low. It was hard to tell if the two of 'em even blinked when he passed by thanks to those hoods of theirs, but after taking a quick look around, the older boy stepped up to one of the houses and leaned back.
And after a moment, he threw back his hood, revealing… silver hair, turquoise eyes, and… Sora's eyes widened, and he slid back just a little bit. There was no way…! That boy couldn't be—
"Riku," said the other boy in a voice too close for comfort. "Are you sure about this?"
"Look, we've gone over this before." The Riku-lookalike shook his head, folding his arms over his chest. "And, trust me, I'm not happy about it, but what other choice to we have? We have to get back at him somehow."
"…Right." The other boy paused, reaching for his hood. He pulled it back after a second, revealing a head of spiky blond hair and an eerily familiar face. He looked kinda like…
No, maybe he was just seeing things, just like that lookalike. It had to be a coincidence, and there was no way that guy down there was really Riku! If he was, then where were Donald and Goofy? Where was Kairi? And why the heck would he start terrorizing the town when he'd worked so hard to protect the worlds? Slamming his fists against the pavement, Sora continued to watch and listen. There had to be more to it…
The lookalike peered over at the ledge for a moment, prompting Sora to sink into the ground. Squinting, the lookalike stepped away from the building and continued to stare for a few more seconds. When nothing caught his eye, he headed back towards his friend.
"Anyway," he said, "we have to cover all the bases, that way if that Fake shows up, he'll wish he'd never messed with us." He narrowed his eyes and slammed his fist against the house. "Especially you."
"It still doesn't feel right."The blond boy gazed down towards the ground. "Isn't there some other way?"
"I wish there was." The lookalike sighed, running a hand through his hair. "But, c'mon, Sora. Xemnas said we can't take him out yet, so this is our next best bet."
…Sora? Did he just call him Sora? But that wasn't right, either! Sure their faces were kinda similar, but that blond guy looked and sounded different from him! If anything, he sounded more like Ven, which made things even weirder. The more Sora thought about it, the more he cringed. Just listening to them go on about replicas, some guy named DiZ, and a twisted revenge scheme made him shake with frustration. It was tempting to jump down there and step in before things got outta hand, but what good would that do? He couldn't talk, he was still a Heartless, and there was obviously something fishy going on with those two!
But for the time being, he opted to crouch down once more, listening in as the two boys moved further down the street.
"Okay," said the lookalike, glancing around the area, "Leon's gotta be around here somewhere. If we can set him off, then we'll be good to go."
"And then we can get back to our mission, right?"
"Yeah, sure." The lookalike shrugged. "But it's not like there's a shortage of Heartless here. I bet we'll have this place cleared out in five minutes."
With that, the two boys continued on their way, rounding the corner and vanishing from sight. Though a part of Sora wanted to trail along and keep spying on them, he'd already heard enough to get a rough idea of what was going on… and it sure wasn't good. Narrowing his eyes, he set up and let out a huff. Those two jerks were onto something, and he still refused to believe Riku was one of 'em! No, that guy, whoever he was, had to be an impostor. And if Riku had an impostor going around and stirring trouble, then what if everybody else took it the wrong way? It could've been some kinda set-up! In fact, that's what it probably was.
Shutting his eyes, Sora shifted around so he stood hunched over on the ledge. Ven, did you get all that?
It only took a few seconds for his voice to speak up, loud and clear in the back of his mind. "…Yeah, I saw everything."
So, what d'you think it means? I mean, that one guy sounded just like…
"Me? He didn't just sound like me, Sora. That's what I don't get!"
Well, whoever they are, it sounds like they're planning something big. He paused, scratching the back of his head. Almost like they're trying to set Riku up!
And if they were framing Riku for something bad, then how could Sora sit there and let it slide? Sure, he had no idea where Riku was, and sure, he was still afraid of getting spotted like this, but none of that mattered as much as his best friend! If he could just find a way to him and leave some kinda warning, then maybe they could put a stop to this mess before it got outta hand. He'd just have to follow his heart. Their connections would bring 'em back together in no time! If that meant hopping across worlds, then he'd take those chances.
And besides, he did miss his friends.
TO BE CONTINUED