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Keys to the Kingdom

Chapter Text

Long, long ago, all the worlds were still one. One day, this would be called the Age of Fairy Tales.

The massive clock tower rose high above the sprawl of homes and shops that was Daybreak Town, casting shadows upon its mostly resting residents as the sun only barely began to peak over the distant hills. In these early hours of the morning, the city was quiet and calm, the only sound echoing through the cobblestone roads and alleyways being that of the ever-swinging pendulum of the massive clock resting in the heart of the town itself. However, on this particular morning, the sounds of five sets of footsteps could also be heard approaching that very tower, their wondering whispers soon joining in as they congregated together before the imposing structure, confusion and curiosity hanging over all five of the young Keyblade wielders like a shroud.

“Wait… you mean the Master summoned all of you here too?”

“Yes, though… he didn’t give a reason why other than that it was ‘extremely important’.”

“He said that to me too… I wonder what it could be?”

“Whatever it is, we should listen well to him. Its said that his eye can gaze far into the future after all.”

“Well, if that’s the case, then I guess they don’t call him the Master of Masters for nothing, huh?”

“Speaking of which, there he is!”

The other wielders turned their gaze to where youngest among them was pointing, up towards the center of the clock tower before them. There a lone figure stood before the smoothly-swinging pendulum, clad in a pitch black hood and cloak that obscured all features as he looked down at the group far below. He said nothing, his hands held calmly behind his back as he simply turned and walked off, heading back inside the tower itself and offering the five wielders the unspoken invitation to do the same.

And though they still hadn’t the faintest idea as to why they were there, the ever-dutiful group nodded amongst themselves, eager to hear whatever it was their Master had to say.


 

“Hey, hey! There’s my five apprentices of the hour!” the Master of Masters greeted cordially as the five youths entered his chamber. “Ira, Aced, Invi, Gula, and… Ava!” He pointed at each of them as he essentially called roll. “Oh, and let’s not forget early-bird Luxu over here.” The Master nodded back at his sixth apprentice, clad similarly to him as he stood in the shadows of the room, offering a nod of greeting to his fellow apprentices and little else. “You’re all right on time. Sorry to call you all here so early,” the Master continued. “But we have a lot to talk about, so you might as well get comfy.”

The Master nodded over to the nearby table, prompting his apprentices to take a seat. Even still, it wasn’t long before one of them, namely Aced, spoke up to pose the question that was on all of their minds. “Master, if I may ask… what is that you’ve called us all here for?”

“Ah, always ready to get right to the point, aren’t you, Aced?” the Master asked knowingly. “Well then, I guess I won’t keep you all in suspense. See, lately I’ve been busy doing some… digging, so to speak.”

“Digging?” Ava asked, confused. “About what?”

“About the future, of course,” the Master said, walking around the table casually. “We have a pretty nice setup here, as you all know, with all of us Keyblade wielders keeping the worlds safe from darkness and whatnot. But… things aren’t gonna stay like this forever.”

“What do you mean?” Invi inquired, a hint of worry in her tone.

“What I mean is that change is coming,” the Master turned away from the group rather mysteriously. “Whether we like it or not. And that change is gonna leave nothing the same as what it once was. So I decided that we’re better of safe than sorry and by preparing for it rather than panicking over it, which is why you all are here.”

The wielders all looked to each other, still confused by the Master’s vague implications as a whole. What did he mean that change was coming? What kind of change and on what scale? And if indeed it was a change for the worst as most of them had already started to fear, then what could possibly be done to prevent it?

It seemed as though the Master had read their worrisome thoughts as he turned back to his desk, picking up a stack of thick, stately books that he began to pass around the table. All five of the books were seemingly exactly the same, thick tomes with elegant silver engravings upon smooth blue covers. Needless to say that all five of the wielders were quite intrigued by these volumes as they began to leaf through them, spotting entries on Keyblades, darkness, and more.

“Master, what is this?” Ira asked with a focused frown.

“That…” the Master pointed to one of the books lying on the table. “Is the Book of Prophecies. Wrote it myself, so you can trust me when I say it’s a pretty good read. Basically, it lays out everything you need to know about what’s gonna happen, which, in turn will help you get everyone ready for it.”

“Um… how are we supposed to do that, exactly?” Gulu asked as he shut his copy of the book.

“By taking charge of things around here!” the Master proclaimed with apt vigor. “That’s why, from here on out, none of you will be Keyblade Masters anymore-”

“What?!” Aced exclaimed, appalled by such a claim. “B-but Master, we… we all passed our Mark of Mastery exams years ago! How could you just take our titles away from us like this?!”

“Ah, you didn’t let me finish,” the Master shook his finger disapprovingly. “You aren’t going to be Keyblade Masters because you’re all getting a promotion! Today, I’m upgrading all five of you from Masters to Foretellers.”

“Foretellers?” Ava asked, curious.

“Yep! It’s a pretty snazzy title if I do say so myself,” the Master said, hands on his hips. “Each of you are going to go out there and recruit groups—or “Unions” of Keyblade wielders to train and teach, just like I did for all of you. Then you’ll each send your Unions out to fight Heartless, ya know, those pesky creatures of darkness I warned you about? And from those Heartless, your Unions will gather light, which in turn, will help protect you from the darkness. So you see, it all comes full circle. Makes sense, right?”

“I suppose so…” Ira mused thoughtfully. “But Master, why chose the five of us for such an important task?”

“Why not you five?” the Master shrugged. “After all, I did train you myself. Unless… unless you think I wasn’t a good enough teacher…?”

“N-no!” Ira exclaimed, flustered. “No, that’s not at all what I was trying to say, Master! You’ve taught us incredibly well, of course!”

“Glad to hear it,” the Master said mirthfully as he retrieved something else from his desk: a group of elegantly made, exceptionally intricate masks. “Now, don’t think I’m spoiling you all, but I’ve got even more presents to hand out. Ira, why don’t we start with you?” He presented his eldest apprentice with a grand unicorn mask with a graceful mane flowing out of it. “Here you go, the mask of the unicorn. Designates you as the leader of the Union Unicornis. As reliable as you are, I know you won’t let me down.”

“T-thank you, Master,” Ira nodded dutifully as he accepted his new mask and role, knowing well the importance of living up to the Master’s expectations.

“And for you, the fearless Aced,” the Master approached his physically strongest apprentice. “The mask of the bear and the Union Ursus. Go out there and gather up some strong wielders to stand by your side for me, got it?”

“O-of course I do, Master,” Aced said with a hint of pride for his new position in his tone. “I won’t disappoint you.”

“Hm… we’ll see,” the Master retorted vaguely, leaving Aced in a bit of confusion as he continued onto his next apprentice. “Now, Invi, as upright and virtuous as you are, you get the mask of the snake and the Union Anguis. I have no doubts that you’ll lead them well.”

“I… I shall do my very best,” Invi said, forcing her voice to be stern as she accepted the great task before her.

“Gula!” the Master passed off the next mask to his second youngest apprentice. “Coolheaded and calm; I always liked that about you. Which is why you get the mask of the leopard and the Union Leopardus to call your own.”

“I… understand, Master,” Gula said evenly as he took his mask and all it entailed.

“And last but not least, Ava,” the Master stopped at his last apprentice. “Young, pure-hearted, and kind. Just what we need to balance this group out. So, for you, I have the mask of the fox and the Union Vulpes. I have a feeling you’ll lead them to the light with no problem.”

Ava was silent for a moment as she stared down at the mask in her hands, awestruck at the heavy responsibility that now rested on her shoulders, even despite her youth. Still, in the end she nodded, confirming and hoping all at the same time that she could carry it out to the best of her abilities. “Yes, Master,” she said with a deep breath of resolve. “I’ll try—no. I will.”

“You got it,” the Master said, offering her a playful pat on the head before he moved to stand before the entire group once more. “Now, you’re all caught up to speed. Don’t worry, I’m still gonna be around to answer any questions you might have—for a while anyway—but for now, there’s still one more thing we need to talk about. And it’s… a big thing. A very big thing.” The Master’s usually playful tone turned serious as he paused for a moment, letting silence hang throughout the chamber. All of the newly deemed Foretellers leaned forward, and even Luxu perked up, curious to hear whatever it was the Master intended on telling them next.

“What I’m about to tell you doesn’t leave this room,” he began, his tone surprisingly hard and cold. “At least not until the right time has arrived. Each of you knows that every world is connected by one great light, one heart that binds everything and everyone that lives, that ever has lived and ever will live together: Kingdom Hearts.”

As the Master’s last words echoed throughout the chamber, an air of reverence fell upon the Foretellers, all of them paying their silent respect to the source of light within their world. Kingdom Hearts was seen largely as a thing of legend by most, but the Master’s research had confirmed to them that it was indeed real and was indeed the very thing that connected everything in existence, just as the Master had said.

“There’s no doubt Kingdom Hearts is going to play a role in what’s to come,” the Master continued almost ominously. “Which is why all of you need to know this: the door to Kingdom Hearts can indeed be summoned by its counterpart, the weapon after which all Keyblades in existence are made in the image of: the X-blade. I’ve studied that exact X-blade for years, and I used that research to pull each of your Keyblades out of your own hearts, but… none of them are the same as the real deal. All of you already know this, but what I’m about to tell you is something that almost nobody knows.”

Once again, the Master paused, leaving all six of his apprentices in almost breathless suspense until he finally unveiled this great secret to them in a tone so rigid and emotionless that it barely even sounded like the Master at all. “Even if someone does use the X-blade to summon Kingdom Hearts, that’s all they’ll do. Its true power, its complete essence, is something that can never be contained or controlled by anyone. Unless… that someone were to gather the thirteen Keys to the Kingdom.”

As captivated as they were by the Master’s lecture, most of the Foretellers barely even thought to speak up to interrupt him. However, as the Master let his words linger on the almost suffocating silent air once again, Ira decided to work up the nerve to venture the question each of them wanted to ask. “The… Keys to the Kingdom, Master?”

“Yep,” the Master nodded, his tone a bit lighter than before but still just as serious. “Thirteen special Keyblades forged by the essence of Kingdom Hearts itself. They’re scattered across a bunch of different worlds and hidden extremely well, to the point that looking for them is basically a fool’s errand in and of itself. But… without them… well, anyone looking to take over Kingdom Hearts for themselves is bound to be real disappointed, let’s just say that.”

“W-well, that’s a good thing, isn’t it?” Ava spoke up somewhat apprehensively. “That means that if someone with a heart filled with darkness tries to claim Kingdom Hearts as their own, then they won’t be able to… right?”

“Eh, maybe, maybe not,” the Master shrugged. “I guess it all depends on whether or not the Keys stay hidden or not. But… I have a feeling that nobody’s even gonna go looking for them for quite some time, so you shouldn’t have anything to worry about on that front. Just as long as we keep this a secret between the six of us.”

Without hesitation, the Foretellers nodded their confirmation that they would hold this prophecy to the upmost secrecy for the sake of protecting both Kingdom Hearts and the world itself. In fact, the only one of their number who didn’t make this same silent, solemn vow was Luxu, who simply turned to leave the room without another word to act upon the careful instructions his Master had given him, as odd yet integral as they might have been.

“Now, I want you all to forget about all of this Key nonsense for now,” the Master said with a passive wave of his hand. “Its not really that important for any of you to think too much about anyway. After all, you five each have much bigger roles ahead of you that we need to discuss. So… listen up!”

From there, the newly-named Foretellers spent most of the rest of the day heeding every word their Master had to say about their new positions with careful scrutiny. After all, as far as they were aware, the change that was on the horizon needed to be properly prepared for, regardless of what that change exactly was. However, when the five eventually did discover exactly what that change would entail, they were all quick to realize just how important the burden that rested upon each of their shoulders actually was.

For in time, the Master of Masters disappeared, leaving the fate of the worlds in the hands of his dutiful apprentices. The future, as bleak as it had been foretold, should have seemed bright, but inevitably, distrust stirred between the five, which soon turned to conflict, which eventually turned to war. And that great war, waged over the light of Kingdom Hearts itself, enshrouded all worlds in darkness, just as the Master prophesied would come to pass.

Yet in the end, when the light was reborn and the worlds restored yet now disconnected returned with it, the mystery and allure of Kingdom Hearts and the unimaginable power it posed still stood, beckoning hearts filled with enough greed and ire to try and claim it as their own. And yet, each of those hearts missed one, or rather thirteen essential pieces of the puzzle, pieces that would indeed bestow the might of Kingdom Hearts and all that entailed to them without question.

For, just as the Master of Masters had told his apprentices centuries ago, whoever claimed the thirteen Keys to the Kingdom would be destined to rule not only Kingdom Hearts, but every single world under its bright, all-encompassing light, now and forevermore.

Chapter Text

How did I live in a kingdom of thieves?

When he eventually looked back at that moment in retrospect, Riku would wish he had done so many things differently than he had. If he had known what was going to happen, he would have moved faster, he would acted instead of reacting, he would have done everything in his power to save Sora, to rescue his best friend, to protect what mattered most, before it was too late.

But, as he would find out much later on, he had been too late. And as a result, that was the moment when it had all started to fall apart.

Because instead of rushing to pull the still-sleeping Sora as far away from Xehanort’s grasp as humanly possible as he should have, Riku stood alongside the king, both of them equally dumbfounded as the elderly master slowly rose to stand upon his elevated throne, his sinister Keyblade materializing in his grasp. “But first,” Xehanort continued his lengthy monologue, his tone as calm and collected as ever. “The thirteen darknesses shall be united. All the seats have been filled…” The master’s already triumphant grin widened as he glanced down at the throne across from his, where Sora still sat sleeping, completely unaware of the grave danger he was currently in. “And now the last vessel shall bear my heart like the rest!”

Upon Xehanort’s wordless command, Sora’s seat steadily began to rise so that it could be on the same level of that of the master’s. Needless to say that this was enough to shake both Riku and Mickey out of their shock and prompt them into action. The pair raced forward, Keyblades in hand with the intent to rescue Sora from Xehanort’s dark designs. However, as usual, the Organization seemed to be two steps ahead of them as Xemnas and Ansem also moved swiftly to counter them. The Superior easily managed to pin the king against one of the other thrones as he tried to leap to Sora’s aid, and Riku only managed a few running step forward before the Seeker of Darkness tackled him and brutally restrained him against the central platform.

“N-no!” Riku shouted, struggling fiercely against Ansem’s firm hold. “Sora!” His fight, however valiant, was to no avail as he glanced up to see the throne finally end its ascent, putting Sora directly in Xehanort’s open range.

The master said nothing, apparently assured of his victory as he held up his deadly Keyblade, waving his hand over it to enshroud it with the immense darkness of his very own heart. All either Riku or Mickey could do was watch as, in one swift, heavy swing, Xehanort brought his blade down, sending a piece of his heart flying directly to Sora with nothing to stop it, nothing to protect the keybearer’s heart from being overtaken by the very same darkness and malice that filled the master’s own.

That is, until it was stopped dead in its tracks. Or at least… it seemed to be.

A fierce explosion rattled the entire chamber, flames ricocheting off of the blast as Riku continued staring up at the scene high above him, desperate to know what had happened and fearing the absolute worst.

“He made it!” king exclaimed, oddly relieved despite the circumstances as the smoke surrounding the throne began to clear to clear to reveal that someone, somehow, had indeed come to Sora’s rescue. Even if that someone was perhaps the last person Riku could have ever expected to arrive at a moment such as this.

“Axel?!” Xigbar shouted from his throne, clearly caught off guard. Likewise, Riku gasped at the sight of the former Organization member, who stood high upon the throne, flames still dying down around him as he held one of his chakrams in one hand, and keeping a secure hold on Sora’s still unconscious form with the other.

“Axel?” the former Nobody scoffed sardonically. “Please. The name’s Lea. Got it memorized?”

Despite any former conflict with Axel—or Lea, rather—Riku was so overwhelmed with relief at this timely save that he honestly would have hugged the former assassin if he was able. Despite the shock and confusion spreading amongst the Organization members above him, Riku still spared as much of a glance at Sora as he could, noting that, despite all the odds, he appeared to be just fine from a cursory glance, the fact that he was still soundly sleeping notwithstanding. And while that fact alone was still rather worrying in and of itself, Riku still allowed himself a small sigh of reprieve that he hadn’t lost his best friend after all. At least, that’s what he thought.

“You’re not supposed to be here!” Xigbar snapped up at Lea, sending him a rather vicious glare.

“Promises to keep,” Lea shrugged, nonchalant as ever. “I’ll always be there to get my friends back. What, bad timing?” The former assassin smirked as he glanced up at Xehanort in particular. “You had your perfect little script, but you kinda forgot to write the sequel. Now… let’s find out what happens!”

“What now, you old coot?” Xigbar hissed up at Xehanort as he slammed a petulant hand down on his throne. “Our time is up!”

The master didn’t offer much of a reaction, though even so, his usual knowing grin was still apparent, despite the fact that his plans seemed to have been thwarted. In fact, if anything, his malicious smile seemed to grow as he practically ignored Lea’s unexpected intrusion and instead kept his sights on Sora, sensing something from his supposedly failed thirteenth vessel that none of the others could.

At the same time, another one of the unknown Organization members suddenly leapt from their seat, soaring towards Lea as a massive, familiar claymore appeared in their hands. The former assassin countered the vicious attack evenly and the heavy strike was more than enough to blow the hood of the organization member back to reveal a face that made Lea’s blood run cold.

“Isa!” he exclaimed sharply, holding his own against his former friend pressing hard against him. Saïx said nothing, instead simply sending Lea a cold, piercing glare until the former assassin finally broke the tension between them by leaping cleanly out of the claymore’s range and down to towards the central platform below, taking Sora with him. With Xemnas as distracted by this as he was, Mickey took an opportunity of his own, lashing out with his Keyblade only for the Superior to vanish into thin air, releasing him all the same. Likewise, Riku pushed back hard against Ansem, summoning his Keyblade again just as Lea and Mickey joined him in their bold stand against the Organization and their dark desires.

“Why are you here, Axel?” Xemnas asked, the disapproval towards his former underling clear in his tone.

“No, I told you, my name’s-” Lea cut himself off with an exasperated sigh as he decided to save his breath. “Augh, whatever, Axel, fine. Now, let’s get outta here!”

“Right!” Mickey soundly agreed, knowing that the sooner they got themselves out of the Organization’s reach, the better off they’d all be.

Of course, they weren’t about to let any of them leave so easily. Ansem was the first to react, summoning his imposing guardian of darkness to his aid to halt their purposed escape. The creature rushed down to the platform below, easily snatching both Riku and the king up in its clawed grip. Lea managed to jump back just in the nick of time, but with his hands full with keeping Sora safe as they were, he was quite ill-suited to take the beast on alone at a time like this. Fortunately though, he wouldn’t have to.

Two, fearful, familiar cries broke through the air of dread and tension hanging throughout the chamber as a bright light sparked from high above the platform. And out of that light, fell a pair that happened to land squarely on Ansem’s guardian, delivering a blow that forced the creature to disappear and release its captives on the spot, as accidental as that blow might have been.

“Were we supposed to do that?” Donald groaned from his spot on the ground.

“I think so…” Goofy replied just as languidly as he rubbed the sore spot on his head.

“Goofy! Donald!” the king exclaimed with a surprised, yet relieved grin as he watched his friends slowly pick themselves up off the ground. “You saved us!”

“We did?” Donald asked, initially confused before he quickly perked up. “Uh, I-I mean! Of course we did! That was the plan all along!”

“It was?” Goofy asked with a frown. “Cause last I checked, we came in here without much of a plan at all…”

“Shh!” Donald scolded, pulling on the captain’s arm. “Don’t tell them that!”

This exchange was almost enough to elicit a genuine laugh out of Riku and Mickey, or at least it would of if they hadn’t glanced up to notice the Organization members beginning to fade into thin air one by one.

“We are out of time,” Xehanort announced, seemingly unphased. “Neither the union of light nor darkness has been achieved, and we must all return whence we came. But the gathering of the seven and thirteen is nigh. Be sure to know which side you’re on…” The master’s calculated smile returned as he looked down towards Sora in particular, something that none of the others even noticed as on edge as they all already were. “Let us finish this at the fated place, once your lights and my darknesses have joined together!”

And with that, Xehanort and the other members of the True Organization XIII disappeared, taking their leave until the day the decisive battle between light and darkness the master himself spoke of was to transpire. A day that was not as far off as the stalwart group left alone in the round room might have hoped.


Without question, Riku had agreed to dive into Sora’s heart in the hopes of waking him up.

It was an easy choice to make, one that he barely even had to think twice about, even despite Mickey and Yen Sid warning him of the possible dangers. After all, he knew Sora would and even had gone to the same lengths to save him. It was only fair that he finally return the favor.

 And so Riku had made the dive, only to be met with a pall of immense darkness in a place where none should have ever been. He wasn’t exactly sure what lengths Xehanort and the other members of the Organization had gone to in order to plunge Sora into such a deep, relentless sleep as this, but he assumed that this pervading darkness had something to do with it. Yet even as he fought to battle the vicious armored Nightmare that beset him almost the moment he arrived, Riku couldn’t help but feel as though the darkness all around him felt familiar. He couldn’t quite place it, but it was as though this was a kind of darkness he had known before, from its aura to even its scent, and everything in between, as faint as it all was amidst everything else. He didn’t really know what to make of it, but all the same it worried him, offended him even as he remembered that it had taken a hold in Sora’s heart, of all places.

Which was why Riku decided to fight with every ounce of strength he had in his own heart to free Sora from the darkness invading his. A goal that, by all accounts, he thought he had succeeded at.

But once again, in retrospect, Riku would eventually look back and see how foolish and blind that thought really had been.

Even so, he was surprised, upon defeating the armored Nightmare, to find himself now out of the darkness and standing on the familiar sunset-soaked shores of the Destiny Islands. In a way, the comfort of the waves crashing calmly against the sand would should have felt comforting, like a long-awaited homecoming of sorts. And perhaps, Riku thought, it would have been, if only Sora had been there to greet him with his usual cheerful smile that he hadn’t even realized he had come to miss so very much.

Yet instead of Sora, what Riku did find scattered across the shores of the play island were three other people entirely. The first was unquestionably familiar, and even seeing him again brought Riku a slight pang of guilt that he couldn’t quite chase even long after the fact: Roxas. The question he posed was strange and cryptic, and once Riku presented an answer to it, he vanished, seemingly without a trace. Moments later, Roxas seemed to appear before him again, yet upon a second glance, Riku was quick to realize that this boy wasn’t the ex-Organization member, despite how remarkably similar they were in appearance. Another strange question came and went before Riku found himself face to face with the last of the trio, a girl this time. She bore a striking resemblance to Kairi, even despite her raven hair and Organization cloak, and though Riku could have sworn he’d never once seen her before in his life, she radiated a strange sort of familiarity that could not be denied.

After answering her question, Riku found himself alone on the shoreline once more, taking in the dying light of the setting sun sinking over the sparkling sea. A certain sense of peace settled over him, even as he retrieved an apparent message in a bottle carried in by the tide. He hadn’t the faintest idea of its contents, and though he had half a mind to open it and find out, he refrained upon being met with yet another familiar figure strolling down to meet him on the shore: Ansem the Wise.

The conversation that followed was brief, yet meaningful, imparting Riku with an abundance of information he’d be sure to take back to the waking world with him. Namely the data the researcher had apparently hidden safe within Sora’s heart during his year long slumber, data that, or so Ansem believed, could perhaps prove to be the key to saving the hearts of those who had been lost.

“The heart has always been quick to grow,” the researcher said in thoughtful reflection as Riku listened patiently to what he had to say. “Each exposure to light, to the natural world, to other people, shapes the most malleable part inside of us. Nobodies are not different from us in that manner. Sora was the only one able to return to his human form without destroying his Nobody. That is a testament to the love in his heart for other people, and the bonds that tie them together.”

Ansem paused, staring out upon the sea as his pensive tone turned somewhat hopeful. “Perhaps… he has the power to bring back the hearts and existences of those connected to him—to recreate people we thought were lost to us forever. Our most precious treasures, even an empty puppet, the trees of the forest, the petals on the wind… there are hearts all around us, everywhere we look. And it does not take superhuman powers to see them. Surely we remember as children the way our hearts made everything seem so shiny and perfect. Sora has a heart like that—uncorrupted, willing to see the good before the bad. A heart that will not fall so easily to the darkness, even when it attempts to claim every inch of it for its own. When he sees the heart in something, it then becomes real. When a connection seems broken, he may have the power to mend it. He has touched countless hearts, he has accepted them, and he has saved them. And some of those hearts have never left him, whether they fell to darkness or were trapped there, whether they sleep in the darkness of Sora’s heart, or were welcomed into its warmth… they can be saved. All Sora needs to do is be himself and follow wherever it is that his heart takes him. It is the best and the only way. The rest… is in there.”

The researcher subtly nodded down to the bottle in Riku’s hands, one that apparently contained more hope than he had initially realized. Hope that could very well mean all the difference in their eventual fight against Xehanort and his followers. “Alright,” he nodded, grateful. “Thanks. Thank you.”

“Of course,” Ansem nodded cordially. “Now, why is it that that you are here?”

Upon hearing this question, Riku couldn’t help but let something of a small, awkward laugh out in spite of himself. “Uh… I… kinda need to wake Sora up…” he admitted somewhat sheepishly.

“Don’t tell me he’s gone to sleep again?” Ansem asked almost incredulously.

“Yeah,” Riku chuckled softly. “What’ll I do with him?”

“What indeed?” the researcher agreed, sharing in this good-natured humor. “Never fear. Sora is safe.”

“Huh?” Riku blinked, caught off guard but unquestionably relieved to hear such a thing after everything that happened.

“He’s not here,” Ansem shook his head. “You see, by defeating the Nightmare imprisoning Sora, you freed him. Then you came here, and were questioned by three young people. That was the final key to awaken him.”

“S-so… you mean…?” Riku trailed off, wondering if it was too good to be true and praying that it wasn’t.

“Sora is awake,” Ansem confirmed, turning to the boy with a genuine smile. “You can go home now.”

“Really?” Riku asked, unable to hold back his own smile as warmed by this amazing news as he was. “Thank you.” Not wanting to keep Sora waiting any longer, Riku turned to the ocean, summoning, ironically enough, the Kingdom Key itself to open up the keyhole that would return him to the waking world once again. He unlocked it as swiftly as ever, but even as he prepared to take his leave, Ansem called out to him one last time.

“Young man! I do not believe you ever told me your name,” the researcher remarked, curious.

Though somewhat surprised that this version of Ansem didn’t seem to already know it, he still offered the researcher a parting smile even as he began to glide up towards the light. “It’s Riku,” he affirmed confidently before he began his ascent, more than ready for his long, long-awaited reunion with Sora. A reunion that almost never happened, but would be more than worth the wait.


 

And what a reunion it was. 

Riku was admittedly quite caught off guard to wake up only to find that not only had Sora indeed awakened just as Ansem had said, but that he also seemed to be in the midst of what looked like a small party alongside Donald and Goofy. Said party was soon all but forgotten, however, for the moment Sora noticed Riku was awake, he didn’t hesitate to bombard him with a sudden, tight, elated hug, accompanied by more than a few delighted proclamations of relief. As baffled as Riku was, that relief was something he couldn’t help but share, especially as he was now able to see for himself that sure enough, Sora was just fine, back to his usual upbeat, cheerful self, even despite how close they had all been to losing him.

Even so, the ongoing levity amongst everyone gathered in the tower soon turned serious again as Yen Sid prepared to dole out the results of Sora and Riku’s Mark of Mastery exam. The others all stood by, waiting in baited curiosity as the two Keyblade wielders stood before the sorcerer’s desk, eager to hear whatever verdict he intended on giving in regards to their abilities.

“More than anything,” Yen Sid began as stern and calm as ever. “I am grateful to have you both back from Xehanort’s deception unharmed. And I am grateful to Lea, whose spontaneous actions turned the tides.” The former assassin smirked from his corner of the room as he casually leaned against the wall, though knowing the importance of the moment, he said nothing and allowed the sorcerer to continue speaking his piece. “I am also deeply sorry,” Yen Sid went on, addressing Sora and Riku once more. “For failing to perceive the danger and throwing you headlong into a perilous test. Even so, this experience has revealed many hidden truths, and we must gird ourselves for the great clash with darkness that lies before us. I believe we need a new Keyblade Master, one with a new kind of power. Sora and Riku, you both deserve the honor, however, one of you braved the realm of sleep again to unlock the final Keyhole and save a friend.” The sorcerer paused, as if to let the weight of his words sink in before finally delivered the exam’s final results. “Riku, I name you our new true Keyblade Master.”

A palpable moment of silent surprise rang through the room at this announcement, and Riku, as admittedly stunned by it was he was, didn’t even know how to react to his newly-bestowed title. Sora was the first to do so instead, breaking the silence with an excited gasp and another celebratory hug. “Way to go, Riku!” he exclaimed brightly, catching the new Keyblade Master off guard yet again. “I knew you were gonna pass with flying colors! This is just so awesome!”

As awed as he was by his new title, Riku couldn’t help but focus his attention on Sora, or rather on the fact that only one of them had been named a Master instead of both. “I… y-yeah…” Riku said somewhat distantly, still rather amazed that he had passed at all. “I guess it is. But… what about you, Sora?”

“Oh yeah!” Sora turned back towards Yen Sid expectantly. “What about me? Did I pass too?”

The sorcerer let out something of a sad sigh as he shook his head truthfully. “Sora… Although you and Riku both preformed admirably during your exams, the overall purpose of your journey through the sleeping worlds was to allow both of you to master the power of waking. Riku accomplished this by diving into your dreams to awaken your heart from the depths of slumber. However, it is a power that you have yet to achieve, one that is necessary for preparing ourselves for the inevitable battle against Master Xehanort. It is for that reason that I’m afraid that you are still not ready to receive the title of Master. I appologize.”

For a moment, Sora had nothing to say in response to this rather discouraging news, nor did he seem to show much of a reaction to it at all, almost as if he was still trying to process it all. Briefly, genuine disappointment seemed to flash across his expression, his hands ever so slightly clenching into fists at his sides. And then, without even skipping a beat, he seemed to settle into cool acceptance over a failing that certainly would have set anyone else back a great deal. “Eh, its fine,” he said with a small smile and a shrug. “I’ll just have to try harder next time is all. Besides, Riku still passed!” At this, Sora once again threw an arm around Riku’s shoulder’s, largely not even noticing the bewilderment and slight concern written all over his friend’s face. “And like I said, that’s completely awesome!”

“Gee, Sora,” Goofy spoke up. “You’re kinda acting like you really did pass.”

“I told you Sora still needed more practice,” Donald remarked, crossing his arms.

“Hey!” Sora snapped, playfully offended.

“So… I really am a Keyblade Master…?” Riku interjected, still trying to take it all in. Yen Sid nodded his confirmation to this fact and Sora warmly did the same as Mickey and the others came in to offer their accolades.

“Congratulations, Riku!” Mickey bid proudly, extending a hand for the new Master to shake.

“Thank you, Mickey,” Riku finally smiled, returning his long-time friend’s handshake firmly. “I owe it to my friends.”

“Ah, I’ll catch up with ya in no time flat,” Lea cut in, still leaning against the far wall.

“What?” Sora asked, surprised. “You wanna be a Keyblade Master?”

“Yeah,” Lea nodded with a smirk. “I mean, I came here to learn how to learn how to wield one. You know, I was gonna come swooping in, Keyblade in hand, but… I just couldn’t get mine to materialize. Must be in the snap of the wrist or something…” To prove his point, the former assassin held his hand out, only to be just as shocked as everyone else when a fiery-themed Keyblade suddenly flashed into existence in it. A collective gasp rose up from everyone in the room, the importance of this moment not lost on any of them; after all, it wasn’t every day that a new Keyblade wielder was discovered, much less in such an unexpected way as this. “Well…” Lea grinned as he turned his new Keyblade over, inspecting it proudly. “What do ya know? Looks like I’ve already got a head start in catching up to you two after all.”

“I’d say!” Sora laughed as Riku joined in, just as amused.

“To see you successfully summon your Keyblade is a reassuring sight indeed, Lea,” Yen Sid spoke up with a genuine smile. “After all, we will need all the help we can get in our struggle against Xehanort and those allied with him. Along those same lines, our focus now should be rallying more allies of light to our side as well. There is still much that needs to be done, but currently, I believe now would be an appropriate time to regroup and recuperate. The rest of you are free to take your leave for the time being, though I would like Lea to stay behind to receive further instruction about what to do next. But before you go, remember, all of you, our work in protecting the worlds from the great threat that Xehanort poses to them is far from over; in fact… I’d say it has only just begun…”


 

“What do you mean you’re leaving?” Riku asked, his arms crossed as he stood in front of the door leading out of the tower, essentially blocking Sora’s path.

“Aw, c’mon, Riku, its no big deal,” Sora assured, barely managing to skirt past his friend to get outside. “There’s just something I have to take care of really quick. I’ll be back in a few hours, I promise.”

“Hmph, a few hours,” Donald deadpanned as he joined along in following Riku, Mickey, and Donald out after Sora. “That’s what you always say, and then a few ‘hours’ ends up turning into a few days!”

“Hey! I just like taking my time with things is all!” Sora shot back, defensively.

“Are ya sure you have to go?” Goofy asked, showing the concern that Donald likely meant by his remarks.

“Well, I did sorta doze off…” Sora noted as he continued on his way. “Like I said, I just have some stuff to take care of. And before you ask, don’t worry; its not ‘dangerous’ or anything like that. I’m just going to visit some friends for a bit and then I’ll be right back.”

“Sora…” Riku mused rather plaintively. “You know normally I wouldn’t mind, but… after what juts happened… I feel like you should take at least one of us with you. Just in case.”

At this, Sora finally paused, glancing back at the group with a small, yet knowing smile. “Aw, I appreciate all the concern, you guys, but seriously, I’ll be fine. You worry too much.”

“Only because you always seem to be getting yourself into some kind of trouble!” Donald fussed before letting out a relenting sigh. “So just… try not to get yourself in anymore trouble, ok?”

“You got it,” Sora agreed with a small laugh and a playful salute, one that actually did manage to set not only Donald, but the others at ease as well.

“Be careful,” Mickey advised with equal concern.

Very careful,” Riku added with a hint of levity in his tone.

“Right!” Sora assured brightly as he prepared to summon his Keyblade to open the way. “See you soon!” In its usual flash, the Kingdom Key appeared in his grip, easily summoning a Keyhole that would lead back into the sleeping worlds once more. Despite his apparent confidence in letting Sora go off on his own like this, Riku couldn’t deny a strange sense of apprehension as he watched his friend take his leave. There was no doubt that he’d be back again soon, Riku would make sure of that, but even so, something still felt… off in a way that he couldn’t quite place.

But perhaps, he would have been able to, and maybe he could have even found a way to stop all it all before it even had a chance to begin… if only he had seen the faintest spark of unwelcome golden yellow invading Sora’s otherwise deep ocean blue eyes as he disappeared into the light.

Chapter Text

Breath, should I take a deep?

“The Keyblade Wars of yore plunged the true Kingdom Hearts into darkness and the X-blade was shattered,” Yen Sid offered Mickey his wisdom as sagely as ever. The sorcerer had only just sent Lea off to Radiant Gardens on what would be his first “assignment”, and now both him and the king awaited Riku’s return from his own suddenly-requested errand. In the meantime, Yen Sid heeded the copious questions his former apprentice had for him after their most recent encounter with Xehanort, questions that the prudent sorcerer shrewdly answered. “But the light still shining in the hearts of children rebuilt the world we know today. And the light from the broken X-blade was then divided into seven, to protect the number of pure hearts in the world.”

“Seven pure lights…” Mickey repeated thoughtfully. “They’re… the princesses of heart!”

“Indeed,” Yen Sid nodded. “Those seven pure hearts form the very source of all light in the world. If they are lost, the world will again give way to shadow. Thus, even if we deliberately avoid finding our seven lights to avert another Keyblade War, Xehanort will still target the seven princesses in order to forge the X-blade.”

“So… there’s gonna be a clash between the seven lights and thirteen darknesses…” Mickey began, aptly worried. “And there’s nothing we can do to avoid triggering another Keyblade War?”

The sorcerer didn’t answer right away, his head bowed pensively before he offered his verdict. “That’s not entirely the case. There are still two avenues we can take to prevent the worlds from falling into Xehanort’s hands. The first, is to protect the seven pure hearts by gathering seven lights strong enough to stand against the thirteen darknesses.”

“So… we’re still missing one guardian of light…” the king noted with a frown. “Oh! But wait! What’s the other way we could take?”

“The other way…” Yen Sid began, closing his eyes in thought. “Is to-”

Before the sorcerer could even get another word out, the door to his chamber suddenly creaked up, catching the pair’s attention instantly. “Riku! You’re back!” the king exclaimed, surprised as he turned to face the newly-named Master.

“That’s right,” Riku nodded before dutifully turning to the sorcerer. “Master Yen Sid, I brought you the ‘guest’ you asked for, but… you never said why…”

“Huh?” Mickey asked, confused, that is, until he spotted the new figure Riku stepped out of the way for. “Wow!”

“I have come to learn that you, too, can wield a Keyblade,” Yen Sid addressed his new guest cordially. “I am glad you are here.”

Slowly and somewhat shyly, Kairi nodded as she properly stepped into the room, feeling rather out of place, even with Riku standing right beside her. Before she even worked up the nerve to say anything, she stole a brief glance over at the new Master, who offered her a kind, confident smile and a reassuring nod, reinforcing the encouragement he had given her when he had first arrived at the island to retrieve her. “Y-yes, sir,” she finally said, bowing somewhat out of respect for the sorcerer. “Though… I’ve only used it a few times… and I’m not really that great with it, to be perfectly honest…”

“Don’t be so modest,” Riku crossed his arms, still grinning over at her. “Sure, you’re a little rough around the edges, and you can be a bit reckless—wonder where you got that from—” This was enough to elicit a small, bright chuckle from Kairi, one that was more than enough to set her at ease, especially as she warmly thought of who Riku was referring to. “But still, you’ve got plenty of potential.”

“Aw, thanks, Riku,” Kairi smiled, grateful. “I’m glad to have your vote of confidence.”

Riku shrugged, his tone casual yet sincere as he offered her an affirming glance. “Well, if anyone deserves it, it’s you.”

“Indeed,” Yen Sid interjected evenly. “The potential Riku speaks of is an admirable trait to be sure, one that can be honed and harnessed into the proper skill befitting a true eventual Keyblade Master. And in dire time such as these, it is potential that would benefit our efforts greatly.” The sorcerer paused to let the weight of his words sink in as the trio gathered before him exchanged a wondering glance.

“The great battle with Xehanort is almost upon us,” he continued, this time in blunt, simple terms. “As you know, we must take action to keep the seven pure lights safe, and thus we must hasten to assemble the seven guardians of light. It is time to return to our world the three Keyblade wielders we lost over a decade ago. Ventus, Terra, and Aqua must be saved from their sad ends, for they still have more to achieve. Following their first battle with Xehanort, Ventus’ heart refused to awaken, and so Aqua found a safe location to conceal him. But when she set off in search of her other missing friend, Terra, she fell into a place from which there is no return without outside help.” As Yen Sid finished this lecture, he nodded to his former apprentice, prompting the king to speak his piece on what he knew about Aqua’s whereabouts.

“I saw her,” Mickey began, his tone devout and serious. “In the Realm of Darkness.”

In the brief silence that followed, Riku and Kairi looked to each other, curious, before devoting their full attention to the king and the tale of woe he had to tell. In deep detail, Mickey explained to them that Aqua had spent the past twelve years wandering the dark world alone, lost adrift the shadows in a place where time stood still and where the Heartless called their home. Bereft of her friends, Ventus and Terra, to stand by her side to support her and strengthen her, the Keyblade Master nearly drifted further into the cold, empty, all-encompassing darkness, only for Mickey to arrive just in the nick of time to come to her aid. From there, the pair teamed up to find the realm’s dark Keyblade, a weapon that, when paired with is light counterpart, held the power to seal the Door to Darkness and protect the worlds from the immense threat the Heartless posed. And in the end, they succeeded in that task, helping none other than Sora and Riku seal the dangerous door from both sides. Yet even so, this victory came at a heavy price. In order to protect Riku from a converging horde of Heartless, Aqua fearlessly threw herself directly in the line of fire, though at the cost of escaping from the darkness she had been imprisoned in for over a decade. And in that darkness she remained, alone and unknown even still, without any hope of returning to the light on her own accord.

After the king had finished telling his story in full, a solemn sort of silence filled the room as they all reflected on Aqua’s grim fate, a fate so undeserved for a Master so noble and so brave. By all accounts, it was a fate she was still suffering from, for as far as any of them knew, she would likely remain wandering in the vast, lonely shadows, lest a helping hand from the light finally reached out to her aid to bring her back home where she belonged. And, the more Riku thought about everything he had just heard, the more he realized, perhaps more than anyone else, that helping hand was more than a long time coming.

“She sacrificed herself… to save me?” he asked, his voice soft at first before he quickly turned towards Mickey in sudden frustration. “Why did you keep it from me for so long? All this time, she’s been trapped in the darkness, and the only one who knew about it was you?! How is that fair?!”

The king sighed remorsefully, shaking his head. “I had to respect her choice.”

“What about us?!” Riku countered hotly. “You could’ve given us a choice! We could have gone and helped her!”

“…I know…” Mickey admitted, genuine shame in his tone for letting his friend languish in the darkness for so very long. In truth, there had been many times when the king had wanted to venture back into the Realm of Darkness in a further attempt to rescue Aqua, but each time he had refrained out of fear, caution, or some other distraction pulling his attention away. And while he certainly understood Riku’s righteous anger, he was hard pressed to come up with a viable excuse in order to quell that anger himself. Fortunately though, Yen Sid decided to step in to do that for him.

“Do not be rash, Riku,” the sorcerer advised authoritatively. “As Mickey clearly told you in his story, reaching the Realm of Darkness the first time was not a simple task. And even if we had found a way back in, regrettably, none of us possessed the necessary means to get Aqua back out safely. So I forbade Mickey from telling you, let along going after her.”

“But why keep it secret?” Riku asked, still clearly upset.

“That much is obvious,” Yen Sid said simply. “If not you, then certainly Sora would have staged a reckless attempt at a rescue.”

Upon hearing this, Riku finally settled somewhat, knowing that there was certainly a good deal of truth in that statement. After all, he wasn’t fond of the idea of owing a debt to anyone, but the fact that he essentially owed his life to someone he couldn’t even return the favor to was more than enough to set him on edge to the point of compelling him to do something about it. As for Sora, well, to say that he always, always went out of his way to help just about anyone he met, even if it was at his own expense or the cost of his own safety or wellbeing, was an understatement. As much as Riku didn’t really want to admit it, the sorcerer had them both pegged exactly right, for in their shared sense of justice, there’s no doubt at least one of them would have tried to save Aqua from the darkness, only to likely end up trapped there themselves as a result.

“But now,” Mickey spoke up with a sense of renewed verve. “We can help Aqua! You and I,” he said, resolved as he turned to Riku. “We’re gonna go find her!”

“Yeah!” Riku exclaimed without a second thought, more than ready to finally set things right. As far as he was concerned, Aqua had suffered in the darkness, a place that he was all too familiar with, long enough; it was finally time to help her return to the light. “Count me in!”

Despite the striking determination of the moment, Kairi couldn’t help but cut in with a bit of a small, amused chuckle as she stepped forward. “Who’s this new Riku and where is the old one?” she asked, offering Riku a bit of a wry grin.

“New me?” Riku raised an eyebrow, confused.

“Yeah,” Kairi laughed again. “Right now, you sound more like Sora!”

“Should I be flattered?” Riku asked, catching on with a smirk. “I try too hard to be the role model all the time. Sometimes, its just more fun to listen to my heart. Which… is Sora-esque, I guess?”

“It sure is,” Kairi retorted playfully. “But don’t worry; we still like you.” Riku stifled a laugh of his own at this, realizing just how much he had been missing Kairi’s particular brand of good-natured teasing. He made a mental note to get back at her for it eventually, but for now, the mood of the room turned serious once again as Kairi approached the sorcerer’s desk intentfully. “Master, I came here because I want to help somehow,” she began sincerely. “What can I do?”

Yen Sid nodded, accepting her earnest proposal to join their cause, even despite the potential danger. “I have entrusted the wizard Merlin to oversee the training of our new Keyblade wielders: yourself and Lea.”

“Lea?” Kairi frowned, unfamiliar with the name.

“He means Axel,” Mickey pointed out promptly.

What?!” Kairi gasped, instantly taken aback. The very moment the former assassin’s name was brought up, memories of being dragged into the darkness and held captive in a cold and lonely cell against her will came rushing back to her like a sudden, very unwelcome flood. It was a time she didn’t like remembering, knowing that the only good any of it had done her was reuniting her with Sora and Riku by the end of it all. And it was all because of Axel, who had pried her away from the safety of the Destiny Islands and had plunged her into peril untold. The fact that he was even still around was baffling enough alone to Kairi, but the idea of working, of training alongside him was all but unthinkable, even as the king managed to explain.

“He’s a regular person now,” Mickey rationalized as encouragingly as he could. “He even saved Sora for us! You can trust him!”

Needless to say that Kairi wasn’t convinced by that alone. Quickly, she glanced back at Riku, hoping that he’d offer her supportive solidarity or a way out of this or something, but all he did was nod in solid agreement with what the king had just told her. Thanks a lot, Riku, she thought with a small huff of frustration. You’re a BIG help… A large part of her wanted to argue, to speak her piece and explain exactly why she had no intentions of training with her former kidnapper, of all people, and that they’d have to come up with some other way, any other way instead. She wanted to… and yet, as she took a moment to pause and take in the hopeful glances Mickey, Yen Sid, and Riku were all sending her way… she found that she simply couldn’t. After all, everyone else had all gone through their fair share of unpleasant, unexpected experiences, Sora and Riku in particular, in their efforts to protect the worlds. What made her so better than all of them to think that she didn’t have to bite the bullet and do what must be done as well?

“I… o-ok…” she agreed, her voice small and hesitant. Of course, there was much more she wanted to say on the matter than that, but she refrained, knowing that doing so would only make her seem immature and foolish. “Ok, I’ll go.”

“Great!” Riku said with a proud smile as he placed a reassuring hand on her shoulder. “And don’t worry; you’ll be just fine, Kairi. Knowing you, I have a feeling you’ll be giving me and Sora a run for our money in no time.”

“You better believe I will!” Kairi shot back, though even her passion was somewhat halfhearted as her smile fell somewhat. “And… hey. Be careful out there in the Realm of Darkness. Ok? I… I almost lost both you and Sora there once. I don’t know what I’d do if I lost either of you again.”

“Like I said, don’t worry,” Riku said, still grinning as he pulled his hand away from her. “I’ll be back before you know it. Now, Sora, on the other hand, he’s the one you might have to keep an eye on.”

The pair shared a warm, amused laugh at this, one that felt painfully too short as Mickey began to head out, beckoning Riku to join him. “C’mon, Riku! It’s time for us to go. First we gotta find an entrance to the Realm of Darkness, and then-”

“Mickey,” Yen Sid stopped the pair short before they could leave. “Take these with you.” With a wave of his hand, the sorcerer conjured two large suitcases upon his desk. “The three good fairies asked that you be presented with them. They are new vestments that will shield you both from the darkness.”

With dutiful bows, the pair retrieved the cases, thanking the sorcerer as they turned to take their final leave and head out on their mission. Kairi lingered back to hear whatever further instructions Yen Sid had to impart her with, but even so, she couldn’t help but watch both wistfully and worriedly as Riku and Mickey left. She listened carefully to what the sorcerer had to tell her about her next destination from there, but all the while, she couldn’t help but let her thoughts wander. She had made her decision clear, even despite how she felt about it, but even so she still wondered if the decision that everyone expected her to make had really been the right one to make after all…


 

Mickey and Riku hadn’t been able to leave the Mysterious Tower without passing by Goofy and Donald on their way out, and needless to say that when the pair revealed where they were going, the captain and the magician saw them off with an aptly emotional farewell. Their overwhelmingly concerned wishes for both their king and the newly-named Master to return from the Realm of Darkness safely had been copious and by the time they had finally been able to slip away from the pair to properly leave, it felt as though hours had passed. Yet even so, time seemed to crawl by the slowest for Donald and Goofy themselves after Riku and Mickey departed, leaving them to continue their surprisingly lengthy wait for Sora to return once more.

“Sora’s late,” Goofy noted as they both dully reclined on the tower’s steps. “Do ya think he’s ok?”

“He better be, if he knows what’s good for him…” Donald grumbled, though the worry in his tone was clear. It was a worry that was equally shared between the pair, and with good reason; after all, they had only barely just gotten Sora back from a horrible fate that nearly hadn’t been able to save him from. And yet, even despite that, he had brazenly decided to go off on his own on some unknown mystery errand, without bothering to explain so much as a single detail as to what that errand might have been. And with Xehanort and his other darknesses still out there on the prowl, needless to say they very steady grounds to be as concerned as they were, if not then some.

Goofy frowned slightly as he heard Donald let out a loud, plaintiff sigh, and as a result, he decided to turn the conversation away from their currently absent companion, at least for the time being. “Gawrsh, Lea sure went back to Radiant Garden in a hurry,” the captain mused thoughtfully. “And now Riku and the king are headin’ off to the Realm of Darkness on their big mission to save Aqua!” Goofy paused as Donald cut in with yet another fretful sigh, one that was likely spared for the aforementioned duo, prompting the captain to divert the conversation once more. “Ya think we’ll ever get to do something important anytime soon?”

“What are you guys talking about? You two do important stuff all the time!”

Upon hearing this, Donald and Goofy both immediately bolted upright with a simultaneous gasp of surprise mingled with an immediate sense of relief the moment they spotted Sora casually walking across the grassy yard to greet them. However, before he could even get so much as another word out, the pair suddenly pounced upon him, more or less tackling him to the ground in a tight, protective hug.

“H-hey! C’mon, you guys! Cut it out!” Sora exclaimed with a laugh as he struggled to escape from their hold. “You’re acting like I was gone for years or something!”

“You might as well have been!” Donald snapped as the hug disbanded and the trio picked themselves up off the ground. “You’re hours late!”

“Hours?” Sora repeated before shrugging easily. “Whoops, sorry! Guess I must have lost track of the time.”

“Boy, I’ll say,” Goofy noted curiously as they began to make their way over to the tower. “You were gone an awfully long time. What were ya doin’?”

The Keybearer paused as he reached the tower doors, his back turned to his companions as his smile briefly faded into a look of slight confusion, almost as if he couldn’t quite remember where he had gone or what he had done himself. Even so, he was quick to shake said confusion off, rebuffing it with a coy chuckle as he glanced back at Donald and Goofy playfully. “That’s a secret,” he said with something of a mischievous wink, one that obviously didn’t answer either of the pairs’ many questions.

With that, Sora threw the tower’s main door open so they could head up to meet with Yen Sid to receive instruction on what to do next; however, before he could so much as even take a step inside the tower, he was met with perhaps the last person he could have ever expected to see there. “K-Kairi?!” he exclaimed, absolutely caught off guard.

“Sora!” Kairi gasped, her formerly apprehensive expression lighting up with a bright, elated smile. Without a single beat of hesitation, she threw her arms around him in a sudden embrace, one that Sora readily returned just as thoughtlessly as the pair shared a warm, delighted laugh over their unexpected reunion.

“I can’t believe you’re here, Kairi!” Sora said, still laughing as they parted a moment later. “Wait… what are you doing here in the first place? How’d you even get here? Oh! Hold on! Does Riku know you’re here? Where is he? Are you-”

“Whoa, whoa, slow down, Sora!” Kairi chuckled, amused. “Can I have a chance to answer at least one of those questions?”

“O-oh, right…” Sora rubbed the back of his neck, flustered. “Sorry.”

“Well, if you really wanna know, Riku was actually the one who brought me here,” Kairi began, her hands held behind her back. The pair stepped away from the door a bit, and though Goofy moved to follow them, Donald was quick to pull him back towards the tower in order to give them a moment of needed privacy. “You’re never going to believe this, Sora,” Kairi continued with a huge smile as she took both his hands into hers.

“Oh yeah?” Sora raised a curious eyebrow as he tried his best to avoid looking down at their joined hands, lest the welcome warmth already building in his cheeks finally show itself physically. “Try me.”

“I’m going to learn how to use my Keyblade so I can fight alongside you and Riku!” Kairi exclaimed brightly, bouncing up and down on the balls of her feet a bit. “Isn’t that exciting?” Oddly enough, however upon hearing this, Sora’s smile finally faded, clear concern replacing it instead, much to Kairi’s confusion. “…Sora?”

“Uh… t-that… that’s great, Kairi, it really is,” Sora said, his tone sincere yet strained for some reason as he gave her hands the slightest squeeze. “A-and I really am happy and excited for you, but… it’s just… being a Keyblade wielder and all can get… kinda dangerous, in case you haven’t noticed, especially with guys like Xehanort and Organization XIII on the loose. I…” he trailed off, letting out a bit of a sigh as he offered her a small, somewhat sad smile. “I just don’t want you to get hurt.”

Though Kairi had half a mind to react harshly to this, she found she was unable to as she meet his solemn, yet sweet expression. “Oh, Sora…” she sighed, returning his smile softly. “I appreciate your concern, but… that’s exactly why I’m going to train! R-Riku told me about what nearly happened to you during your exam…” She stopped for a moment, glancing down fretfully at the frightening thought of what almost was. “If… if you… if Xehanort really had taken over your heart… I would have felt so… awful knowing that there wouldn’t have been anything I could have done to save you. So that’s why I want to, why I need to do this. So I can get stronger and protect you, just like you’ve always been there to protect me.”

Sora hesitated, still clearly apprehensive about the idea, especially as he heard the motivation behind it. As far as he was concerned, nobody should have ever had to put their life on the line to save his, the least of which Kairi, of all people. If anything, the idea of him losing his own heart was far less painful than the thought of losing her in any way shape or form. And though some small part of him wanted to actually tell her that so he could make her understand exactly why he wanted to keep her out of this conflict, he found himself unable to as he met her expectant, hopeful expression once more. “Ok,” Sora nodded with resigned acceptance. “If this is what you feel like you need to do, Kairi, then… then I won’t stop you. Though, I am wondering how you’re gonna do this whole ‘training’ thing in the first place. I mean, nobody trained me or Riku how to use our Keyblades; we were just sort of thrown into the whole thing headfirst and went from there, I guess.”

“Well, not all of us can have that privilege,” Kairi said, her tone turning playful once more as they finally let go of each others’ hands. “I’m actually heading over to Radiant Gardens to train under Merlin the wizard. He’s supposed to be teaching me and-” She sighed, clearly disgruntled as she finished. “And Axel.”

“Oh?” Sora asked, though from Kairi’s sour expression alone he was able to glean exactly why she didn’t seem too fond of the idea. “Ohhhh… Oh, man, that’s… Kairi, are you sure you’re ok with that?”

“What?” Kairi blinked, surprised by such a question.

“Are you ok with going to train with Axel—I mean, Lea?” Sora reiterated somewhat awkwardly. “I mean, he did sort of… you know…”

“…Kidnap me?” Kairi finished, raising an eyebrow. Sora nodded and for a moment, the most Kairi could do was stare at him, dumbfounded to say the least. He was really the first person to actually ask about how she felt when it came to training alongside Axel, instead of simply assuming that she would go to do it regardless of her feelings out of a mere sense of duty alone. It was such a small thing, really, she couldn’t deny that she was genuinely touched by the thought and concern he was focusing entirely on her alone. And though she didn’t quite know how to explain it, she felt as though that concern somehow gave her just enough strength to carry on, even despite her still-persistent doubts and misgivings about the situation as a whole. “I… I know,” she admitted, rubbing her arm. “B-but its ok! I’ll… learn to deal with it.”

“Kairi, you don’t have to train with him, you know,” Sora countered with a worried frown. “Yeah, I know he’s on our side now and everything, but if being around him again is gonna make you uncomfortable, then we can always figure something else out. Maybe… hm…” he paused, trying to think of an alternative plan before snapping his fingers with an excited smile. “I got it! We can go back upstairs and we can try to convince Master Yen Sid to let you train with me, Donald, and Goofy instead! What do you think?”

Despite Sora’s enthusiasm with this idea, Kairi was unable to hold back a knee-jerk laugh over it. “Well, as fun as that sounds, Sora, I… really think I’d just get in your way. Besides, I should probably learn from an expert. No offense.”

“I am an expert!” Sora proclaimed pointedly.

“No, you’re not!” Donald shouted all the way over from the tower, clearly flustering Sora even more.

“Hey!” he snapped, sending an insincere glare over to his chuckling pair of companions. By this point, Kairi had all but succumbed to her laughter entirely, though the levity was soon interupted by the appearance of a portal of light materializing just a few feet away from the pair.

“Well… I guess that’s my ride,” Kairi inferred, taking in a deep breath as she turned to face the portal, though not before sending Sora a bright smile of farewell. “Wish me luck?”

Sora shook his head, grinning. “You don’t need it. I have a feeling you’ll do a great job all on your own.”

“Here’s hoping,” Kairi said with a bit of a diffident smile. “I guess I should be wishing you luck on whatever’s next for you instead, then?”

“I don’t need that either,” Sora said, reaching into his pocket to pull out a familiar charm that both of them still held quite dearly. “I’ve already got it.”

“Y-you still have it…” she whispered, unable to suppress her joyful grin as she raced to hug him one last time, if only to share a quiet, private farewell with him. “I’ll miss you. Stay safe.”

“You too,” he returned just as softly as they slowly began to part ways, though neither of them really wanted to. “See you soon, ok?”

“Yeah,” she nodded, hopeful that their eventual reunion wouldn’t be too far off as she headed into the light and whatever awaited her beyond it. “See you soon.”

And with that, she was gone, though even still, he lingered to watch until the very last glimmer of light she had vanished into disappeared, her charm still resting in his hand and her words still ringing in his heart: “So that’s why I want to, why I need to do this. So I can get stronger and protect you, just like you’ve always been there to protect me.”

“I’ll keep on protecting you, Kairi,” he whispered to both himself and to her as he gripped her charm just a bit tighter. “No matter what happens. I promise.”

“Sora!” Goofy’s call from the tower door was easily enough to break him out of his thoughts and back into the present. “Are ya comin’?”

“We shouldn’t keep Master Yen Sid waiting!” Donald warned, tapping his foot impatiently.

“Coming!” Sora shouted back, carefully slipping the charm back into his pocket as he ran over to join the pair.

“Boy, he sure does got it real bad for her, doesn’t he?” Goofy muttered to Donald with a small chuckle while Sora was still out of earshot.

“Tell me about it,” the magician remarked, rolling his eyes knowingly.

“Tell you about what?” Sora asked, oblivious as he reached the pair.

“Nothing!” they both exclaimed in innocent unison as they led the way inside the tower. Sora eyed his companions suspiciously for a beat, but he didn’t press them any further as the trio hurried up the stairs to receive their next assignment from Yen Sid, whatever it might be.

“We’re back!” Sora announced brightly as the trio burst into the sorcerer’s chamber. However, while he had hoped to surprise Riku in particular with his sudden return, the Keybearer was the one who ended up being both surprised and rather disappointed to find that the newly-named Master was nowhere to be found. “Huh?” Sora frowned, glancing around for any signs of Riku or the king for that matter. “Just us?”

“The others all had important work to do,” Yen Sid informed simply. “So I sent them on their way.”

“Aw, that’s great,” Sora huffed, crossing his arms. “They could have at least said good-bye.”

“Well, Donald and I still got to see them off,” Goofy pointed out.

“Yeah! Its your fault you missed them!” Donald accused pointedly.

“It is not,” Sora countered. “I just like to say good-bye to all my friends.”

“Then do it faster!”

“Hey! I’m here now, right?”

“Yeah, and ya did get a chance to say good-bye to Kairi,” Goofy interjected in an attempt to make peace before their usual bickering could get out of hand.

“Yeah, see?” Sora sent Donald a smug, triumphant grin. “That means I wasn’t that late.”

 As incensed as he was, the magician was more than prepared to keep the argument going, though Yen Sid was quick to cut in just in time. “We have important matters to discuss,” the sorcerer reminded, prompting the trio to quickly snap into attention. “The first is information that Master Xehanort no doubt already has at his disposal, and as a result, it is essential that you arm yourselves with this knowledge as well. There is a prophecy, as old as time itself, that speaks of thirteen special Keyblades, each of them hidden far and wide across the worlds. It is said that whoever possesses all thirteen will be granted the power to rule over none other than the one, true Kingdom Hearts itself.”

What?!” Sora, Donald, and Goofy all gasped in shocked unison upon hearing such an alarming prophecy. After all, their past experiences with Kingdom Hearts had repeatedly shown that it was a dangerous force, an immense power that needed to be shuttered and kept safe from falling into the wrong hands. But to hear that the only thing standing between someone like Xehanort and all the power of Kingdom Hearts was a mere set of lost Keyblades was quite disconcerting indeed.

“I am almost certain that, aside from filling out his own ranks, Xehanort’s current intentions are to gather these thirteen Keys to the Kingdom so that he may claim Kingdom Hearts as his own,” Yen Sid continued solemnly. “It is for that reason that we must-”

“That you want us to go out there and find those Keys before Xehanort can, right?” Sora interupted boldly, already resolved to do just that, especially if it was for the sake of protecting the worlds from darkness once again. “Well, don’t worry! Consider us on the ca-”

“No,” Yen Sid cut him off sternly, eliciting equal confusion amongst the trio.

“What?” Sora frowned, wondering what could possibly be more important of a task for them than keeping Kingdom Hearts out of Xehanort’s reach. “But… why not?”

“Securing the Keys to the Kingdom away from Xehanort and the new Organization XIII is indeed a paramount task that must be undertaken to forestall the end of all worlds,” Yen Sid mused. “However, it is not a task for you to undertake, Sora, at least not yet.”

“Um… then what am I supposed to do?” Sora asked, more or less completely lost by this point.

“In order to defeat Xehanort, there are allies that we must gather, acting now to rouse them from their slumber,” the sorcerer continued on a seemingly unrelated tangent altogether. “We have discussed this before. Your Mark of Mastery exam was conducted in the hopes that you would acquire the power to wake them. However, the darkness nearly took control of you, and your grasp of your new abilities leaves much to be desired. Furthermore, Xehanort nearly made you his vessel, and in the process, stripped you of most of the power you had gained by then. I suspect you have already noticed this, correct?”

Indeed, Sora had noticed. In fact, ever since he had awakened after the exam, he had had felt somewhat… off somehow, even if he didn’t know exactly how to explain it. At first, he had thought that strange, almost dulling feeling would fade over time, but it hadn’t. Even still he felt… unbalanced; his Keyblade seemed to lack its usual radiant pallor whenever he summoned it, and though he hadn’t recently had much of a need to really use any sort of magic, he could tell that his capacity to do so seemed oddly restrained and diminished for some reason. In truth, it wasn’t something he had really put much thought into until now, but as he did, it certainly was quite sobering to say the least. To think that such a small twist of fate, a sinister trap he had been unfortunate and admittedly foolish enough to fall into, could rip so much away from him was more than enough to bring the Keybearer ample amounts of shame.

But even then, he would have no idea just how much Xehanort’s sinister scheme had stolen from him until it was far too late.

All the same, the moment Sora noticed Donald and Goofy both equally fretting over his apparent dejection over this fact, he was quick to perk up once again. After all, there really was no need to worry either of his loyal companions with something that he was sure that, with a little time and effort, he was bound to bounce back from sooner or later. “Whatever!” he exclaimed with a flippant, reassuring grin, paying no mind to the baffled looks Donald and Goofy sent his way. “Happens all the time!”

“…Yes,” Yen Sid nodded, though it seemed as though even he wasn’t entirely convinced. “Chip and Dale are currently analyzing data that Ansem the Wise provided to Riku which could offer us a clue to retrieving the hearts of our lost friends. I have very high hopes for this data, however, our greatest chance of stopping Xehanort’s plan lies in two places: in locating the thirteen Keys to the Kingdom… and with you, Sora. If you trust the guidance your heart gives, I know we will find all of the guardians of light as well as the Keys. But first, you must regain all the strength you have lost. Perhaps it is foolish to expect a full recovery, but it is absolutely vital that you perfect one power—the power of waking, which you failed to master during your exam. There’s someone who lost his strength and found it again, a true hero to whom you ought to pay a visit.”

Upon hearing this, Sora couldn’t hold back an excited gasp, already catching onto who the sorcerer was speaking of based on his familiar tale alone. Donald and Goofy also joined in on the realization, and watched in apt amusement as Sora dramatically posed in an effort to emulate the aforementioned hero. “Perhaps he can point you in the right direction,” Yen Sid finished, capping off all the wisdom he had to offer the trio.

“Got it!” Sora saluted firmly, more than ready to venture out on such a noble task.

“Master Yen Sid,” Goofy spoke up as both him and Donald stepped forward. “You can count on us to take care of Sora!”

“I would have it no other way,” the sorcerer allotted with a small smile. “I put Sora in your hands.”

As if he wasn’t already enthused enough about the adventure to come, Sora became even moreso upon hearing that his loyal companions would be coming along for the ride once again. “Donald! Goofy!” he exclaimed with a laugh as he pulled the pair into a found hug. “Looks like the three of us are finally back in action again, huh?

“Hmph! Only because you can’t become a master without us!” Donald remarked, his tone pointedly playful.

“…Huh?”

“I never woulda thought you’d have failed that exam, Sora,” Goofy added, albeit a bit more good-naturedly.

“Hey!” Sora huffed as he pulled out of their embrace, somewhat frustrated by their sardonic remarks.

“Face it,” Donald continued wryly. “You’re just a half-pint!”

But,” Goofy interjected with a wide smile. “The three of us together make a whole pint!”

“Pint and a half,” Sora corrected, hands on his hips.

“And don’t forget,” Donald reiterated, now grinning himself as he laid a hand out flat before him. “We’ll keep an eye on you.”

“Oh, this is gonna be lots of fun!” Goofy exclaimed cheerfully, putting his hand down on top of Donald’s.

“It’s not a vacation!” Sora pointed out, before ultimately breaking out into a bright smile and joining his hand onto the pile. After all, despite everything that had happened and whatever they might possibly face, it was good to know that through it all, he’d have two of his closest friends on his side through it all once more. “Let’s go!”


 

The Gummi Ship sailed through the space between worlds at a steady pace, despite the fact that it really didn’t have any set destination or course plotted out. Inside of its cockpit, Donald and Goofy both looked to Sora expectantly, as they had been ever since they departed the Mysterious Tower to venture out and follow Yen Sid’s advice. While the captain waited calmly for whatever their young companion decided to do next, the magician was a bit more impatient, especially since it seemed as though Sora had more or less solely been lost in his own inconclusive thoughts for the past several minutes alone.

“Well?” Donald asked, sending the Keybearer a skeptical glance. “Are we going or not?”

“Uh… well, we would…” Sora began hesitantly before muttering off his next statement. “If I knew how to get us there now…”

“What?!” the magician exclaimed hotly. “I thought you did know!”

“Looks like all the old highways are closed,” Goofy pointed out, referring to the paths they had previously taken to traverse the worlds, all of which seemed to be all but gone now. “But didn’t Master Yen Sid say that Sora should just trust the guidance his heart gives?”

“Yeah! C’mon, Sora!” Donald urged. “Which way?” The Keybearer didn’t answer right away as he leaned back in his seat, his brow furrowed in thought as he tried to puzzle out a solution to their problem, as implausible as one seemed. Which of course, only set the already perturbed magician off more than he already was. “Hey! Would you get serious?”

“Give me a break!” Sora countered with an exasperated sigh. “These things take time!”

“Well, since we’ve been there before, why don’t you try picturing our friends like we’re there?” Goofy suggested earnestly.

“Hm…” Sora said to himself as he stood in an attempt to do just that. However, as good of an idea as it seemed to be, even thinking of their familiar friends still wasn’t enough to open up the gateway they needed to proceed.

“Well?” Donald cut in, essentially interrupting the Keybearer’s train of thought.

“Sorry! I got nothing,” Sora admitted as he started to get just as frustrated by the standstill as the magician was. “What did you expect?”

A bout of disappointed silence fell over the trio at this, none of them really having the faintest idea of what to do to so much as even get them to where they needed to go, despite their best efforts. And yet, through this silence, Goofy suddenly spoke up to break it, thoughtfully muttering something that seemed to come to him almost out of nowhere.

“…’May your heart be your guiding key’…” the captain said, catching the attention of his companions.

“Huh?” Sora frowned, confused. “What’s that?”

“Master Yen Sid always said that right before we went off on any of our real important adventures,” Goofy explained with a bit of a grin.

“Really?” Sora asked, unfamiliar with the phrase. “Ring a bell?” he turned to Donald, only for the magician to shake his head, just as baffled.

“Hm, maybe I just imagined it…” Goofy wondered, scratching his head. Yet even so, the mysterious saying stood, to the point that Sora couldn’t help but repeat it as he thought on exactly what it could mean.

“May my heart be my guiding key…” he said quietly, connecting it back to the advice Yen Sid had just offered him moments ago. Perhaps opening the way wasn’t a matter of simply thinking about where they needed to go; perhaps, what would truly guide them was something else altogether: the heart.

On this sudden, newfound burst of inspiration, Sora gasped, a brazen smile lighting up his expression as he rushed to the helm of the Gummi Ship once more. “I’ve got it!” he proclaimed, not even hesitating to summon the Kingdom Key and point it forward into the seemingly empty void of space ahead. A warm glow began to form around the tip of the Keyblade, and from that glow appeared a swirling, familiar portal to another world altogether.

“It’s a gate!” Goofy exclaimed as both him and Donald sent their young companion matching proud grins. “Sora, you did it!”

“Yeah,” Sora nodded daringly as he took a seat, more than ready to steer them forward into the bold, new adventure that awaited them next, whatever it might be. “All right. Olympus Coliseum, here we come!”

Chapter Text

And people who say things they don’t really mean, really mean?

In the wake of the supposed defeat and destruction of the original Organization XIII, the group’s former base of operations had been left abandoned. For almost an entire year, the World that Never Was and the grand castle at its heart lay completely empty and silent, bereft of even the Heartless and Nobodies that were known to naturally spawn there. But with the rise of a new Organization with a new purpose, the shadow-steeped world’s usefulness began anew as well. And once again, the members of the Organization gathered at their former headquarters, waiting in the wings for whatever it is their leader required of them next.

In their current idle time, two such members traversed the unchanged gray corridors of the castle, remembering their winding twists and turns well even after their relatively recent respective revivals. The pair carried on a rather casual conversation, though even despite that, their tones were hushed, lest any unwanted prying eyes or ears be on the prowl. Something that was a very high likelihood, considering the various familiar faces that had returned to fill out the ranks of the new Organization XIII.

“So, why are you back?” Marluxia asked plainly, only barely casting a glance at the member keeping pace alongside him.

“Hmph, nice way to greet your old partner in crime,” Larxene scoffed, though she was still smirking all the same. Her tone was enough to elicit a similar sardonic grin from the graceful assassin, though it was quick to fade as his companion continued. “So, why do you think the old geezer took us back?” she asked, genuinely curious. “He must know we backstabbed the Organization back when Xemnas was running it.”

Marluxia shook his head. “Xehanort doesn’t care about you or me,” he said evenly. “To him, we’re nothing but empty husks. The old Organization was no different. Xehanort needs thirteen vessels to hold his essence.”

“Husks?” Larxene repeated, clearly not fond of the idea. “Not me. You know you and me are way above being just paws in someone else’s game. So instead…” the savage nymph’s grin deepened with a clearly sinister idea as she positioned herself just a bit closer to Marluxia. “Why don’t we just stage another coup instead?”

The graceful assassin sighed almost tiredly as he offered her a disapproving glance. “Larxene…”

“Oh, come on!” Larxene pouted with playful pleading. “It’d be fun. And it might actually work out this time without a dirty double-crosser like Axel around to throw a wrench into our plans. So… what do you say?” At first, Marluxia offered her no replay as he instead continued on his way, even with the savage nymph trailing right behind him, still seeking an answer. “Well?” she pressed impatiently. Finally, the graceful assassin stopped and turned to face her, his expression unreadable even as he prepared to reply and, at least as far as Larxene was concerned, give her the answer she hoped to hear. And yet, before he could, their conversation was unexpectedly interupted by another member who just so happened to round the corner at that very moment.

“Oh please,” Demyx scoffed, clutching his sitar as he joined the pair. “You guys couldn’t do it last time, what makes you think you could pull that whole ‘coup’ thing off now?” The melodious nocturne grinned as he strummed a few notes on his instrument. “You gotta play it smart, like me.”

“What?” Larxene shot back crossly. “You’re not smart! In fact, you’re just about the dumbest person in the Organization, but old and new!”

Demyx shrugged, seemingly unoffended. “Well, you heard what Marly said. I don’t have to be smart.”

“Or capable, or likeable, or attractive,” Larxene listed off, her hands on her hips. “A cereal bowl would make a better vessel!”

“Whoa, now you’re way out of line,” Demyx countered. “I am extremely imposing… When I want to be. Which is, admittedly, almost never.”

“Well, that’s one thing you got right,” the savage nymph huffed coldly. “Looks like the old man is getting desperate if he’d take someone like you back into the Organization. Probably only ‘cause his plan to get the true prize he’d had his eye on backfired on him.”

“Huh?” Demyx frowned, confused. “What prize?”

“Ugh, seriously?” Larxene exclaimed in appalled disbelief. “You can’t be that stupid. But then again, since this is you we’re talking about here, maybe you can be.”

“You and a few of the others who were only just brought back are too late to have known,” Marluxia interjected much more calmly. “But she’s talking about Sora.”

“Whaaaaa?!” Demyx exclaimed, genuinely surprised to hear this. However, before he could ask any of his many newfound questions, a corridor of darkness suddenly materialized, allowing a fourth member to join in on the engaging conversation.

“Ah, so the whispers I’ve heard among the higher rungs are indeed true then…” Luxord mused with a knowing grin as he offered the others a small nod of greeting.

You’re in again too?” Larxene spoke up before the gambler of fate could continue. “What is this, Organization Rehash?”

“I happen to play an important role, even despite my rather recent revival,” Luxord assured. “Unlike some… others, perhaps.”

“So you were listening this whole time?” Demyx asked as he strummed a low note on his sitar. “So not cool.”

The gambler of fate chuckled. “One must hold one’s cards as long as necessary,” he said, conjuring up a deck in his hand to playfully flip about. “Even so, the context you just provided me with… certainly does shuffle the deck in an interesting way. Now I believe I finally understand what I overheard from Xemnas when he said we haven’t lost our proposed thirteen vessel just yet…”

The three younger members exchanged a rather baffled glance at this before they looked back to Luxord once more, overwhelmed with curiosity to hear more about what he’d gleaned from the Organizations’ leaders. “What are you talking about?” Larxene asked, eyeing him suspiciously.

“Either we all heard what happened by now,” Marluxia added, the slightest hint of confusion in his otherwise usually collected tone. “Or we were all there to see it for ourselves. Xehanort’s attempt at forcing Sora to join our ranks were halted by none other than Axel. His plan, however complex and intricate as it might have been, was a failure.”

“Ah, or so it might have seemed at the time,” Luxord retorted, holding up a lone card as he flipped it over to show the rest. “But a single wild card is all it takes to turn an otherwise unsavory hand…” His smile widened as several more matching cards appeared in his hand to create a perfect full house. “Into a full set.”

“Wait, I’m still confused,” Demyx interjected.

“Why is that not surprising?” Larxene muttered, rolling her eyes.

The melodious nocturne ignored her, though even still he sent her a small glare before he spoke his piece. “So did this whole plan that Xehanort had for Sora that Marluxia was just talking about work out? Or… not?”

“That is of no concern to any of you right now.” The other four members swiftly spun around to find none other than Saïx approaching them, his expression as aloof and stoic as ever as he came to stand before the group.

“Ugh, Saïx,” Larxene groaned disdainfully. “Figures that you’d join up again. What, are you here to tell us to get back to doing our jobs or something?”

“Precisely,” the luna diviner replied without missing a beat as he passed through the group. “If the four of you are done wasting your time on aimless gossip, then there are much more important matters to attend to. Master Xehanort has requested that all of us gather in the Round Room to receive our next assignment.”

“Y-you mean… Xehanort’s still here?” Demyx asked apprehensively, gripping his sitar a bit tighter at the mention of the master’s name.

“I thought the old coot left after his plan to ‘recruit’ the Keybrat supposedly fell through,” Larxene added, crossing her arms.

“The master still has business in this world,” Saïx explained, glancing over his shoulder at the group. “And so long as he does, then it is his intention to remain here to see that business carried out. Considering what his intentions are, you would all be wise to listen well to what he has to say.”

Without another word, Saïx disappeared into a dark corridor himself, likely heading off to the very meeting he had just told the group still gathered in the hall about. A bout of silence passed between them as they exchange a dubious glance, none of them quite sure what the master’s specific “intentions” were to begin with. In fact, the only thing they really knew was that the sole reason any of them had been brought back into existence was to aid in exacting those mysterious ambitions, whatever they might end up being.

“It seems as though another game is about to begin,” Luxord spoke up first, summoning a dark portal as he took his leave. “We might as well go learn what the rules are this time, hm?”

“Or better yet, learn how to bend those rules to our advantage,” Marluxia remarked, offering Larxene a small, knowing grin as he left in a similar manner.

“So… I guess everything’s same old, same old, then?” Demyx asked the savage nymph with an irresolute shrug.

“Oh, shut up already,” Larxene hissed as she also took her leave, leaving the melodious nocturne behind to do the same.

“H-hey! Wait up!” Demyx exclaimed, quickly summoning a corridor of darkness for himself. And with that, the entire group was gone, off to join the rest of their number and learn whatever it was their master had in store for them all.


 

Perched upon the highest, most paramount chair of the Round Room, Master Xehanort sat, watching coolly and quietly as the various members teleported in to take their respective seats. Each one of them bore a fragment of his own heart and his essence, of that much he had personally made certain, even among the members that weren’t already some sort of extension of himself. Even so, the elderly master had brought each of these figures back into existence for a reason, a purpose that would not only ensure the clash of light and darkness that he had been seeking for countless years now. But also, a purpose that would also deliver the ultimate prize that awaited on the other side of that clash into his hands once and for all.

One by one, the spotless thrones were filled, some of the members faces’ concealed by their pitch black hoods, others not. None of them spoke to each other out of either respect or fear for their master’s presence, but a few of them did exchange brief, fruitive nods of greeting here and there. By the time all of the members had arrived, all but one of the seats had been filled, the lone empty one being the shortest throne sitting directly across from Xehanort himself. The elderly master’s already steady grin deepened as he kept his sights on that empty throne, knowing that it would be filled soon enough. But as the master had already figured out, that would have to wait; in the meantime, he had another initiative to get off the ground instead.

“Greetings, my Seekers of Darkness,” Xehanort began, garnishing the attention of the entire group from his elevated throne. “It is fortunate that we have all managed to congregate here again so soon. Listen well, all of you, for there is much that we must discuss.” The master paused, almost as if to make sure every single member present was doing just that before he continued. “Firstly, let it be known that the clash of light and darkness that we ever strive towards is soon at hand. Already, the guardians of light are scrambling, rushing themselves to gather allies to their side, no matter how weak and unexperienced those allies might be. They are well aware that our own ranks are nearly completed, and indeed, we are close. There is but only one final vessel we must obtain, but fret not; that vessel is already starting to make the slow but certain fall into our hands. Our missing darkness will belong to us before they even know it.”

“Oh really?” Xigbar spoke up almost knowingly from his own seat. “And just who might this so-called ‘missing darkness’ be, huh?” Likewise, upon hearing mention of this apparently unknown thirteenth vessel, Larxene, Marluxia, Demyx, and Luxord all focused on Xehanort with the same sort of scrutiny, each of them curious to know if the rumors they had shared amongst each other could actually bear some weight after all.

The elderly master simply smirked at this, shaking his head as if to bar the more eager members of his Organization from knowing. “The answer to that will be revealed in due time,” he said mysteriously, sending side glances over at his younger self, Xemnas, and Ansem in particular. The trio said nothing but nodded, almost as if they were communicating something to the master, even if no one else was in on the tip. “But rest assured that we will indeed have all thirteen members on our side, perhaps even a few in reserve, just in case any of you fall short of my expectations…” A handful of the members seemed to fill the almost palpable chill in Xehanort’s tone as he said this, his smile finally gone as he glanced over each of them piercingly. “Which is something that each of you should pray does not happen… I’ve given almost each of you a second chance at existence. Use it well and do not disappoint me…”

If any of the lower-ranking members of the new Organization had any sort of doubts about the kind of stern authority their master wielded, those doubts were soon laid to rest the moment he summoned his Keyblade to his side as a show of exactly that. The fierce, dark weapon radiated immense power, power that some of them feared while others among them craved it. There was no question that it demanded respect, and it was clear that respect was what Xehanort demanded of each of them. And for the most part, that respected was what most of the members decided, for varying purposes and reasons, that they were going to pay him. For now at least.

“Each of you,” Xehanort continued, holding his Keyblade out level. “Take a look at this Keyblade. This weapon, and every other one like it in existence, are mere replicas, rendered after the most powerful key in existence, the one true X-Blade! It is a blade that I brazenly, foolishly even, tried to get my hands on years ago, all without realizing that it is merely a single key needed among several others to unlock the ultimate power that lies behind the essence of all worlds: Kingdom Hearts!”

A few soft, muted gasps rose up from some of the younger members who weren’t previously privy to the master’s plan, though in hindsight it did add up. Kingdom Hearts had always been the ultimate goal of the old Organization; it only made sense that the newest iteration of the group would be working towards its untold power as well. Which was why all ears were still on Xehanort’s bold words as he continued with the intent of detailing exactly how they were going to do just that.

“As mighty as the X-Blade itself is, it alone is not enough to bestow control of the heart of all worlds onto any one individual,” the master explained as his Keyblade disappeared. “To truly claim complete control over Kingdom Hearts, at least according to ancient legends previously lost to the ages, one must gather and unite thirteen divine Keyblades, all forged by the very Kingdom they possess the ability to unlock. And… whoever holds them all is destined to be its ruler undisputed, with every shred of power it has to offer at their disposal, now until the end of time itself.”

“The ruler…” Saïx spoke up first, breaking through the small bout of silence that permeated the room after this prophecy was delivered to the all. “Of Kingdom Hearts…”

“Well, well!” Xigbar spoke up with an intrigued grin upon hearing this. “Now we’re thinkin’ really big here, aren’t we, old man? I’d say it’s about time!”

“So I suppose your intention is to have each of us go out and collect these thirteen Keys for your purposed regime then,” Marluxia inferred, feigning boredom. “Correct?”

“To an extent…” Xehanort grinned knowingly. “The Keys to the Kingdom, as they are called, are scattered far and wide across the worlds. No one knows exactly where they are hidden, but it is foretold that finding even just one will lead to the location of the next and so on and so forth. It is for that purpose that I am indeed sending each of you out amongst that worlds to search for the Keys and bring them back to me. Do this for me, and I can guarantee: each and every single one of you will have an equal share in our conquest when Kingdom Hearts finally, finally belongs to us!”

Out of any other group, this rallying promise might have elicited an excited cheer; but instead, the members of the new Organization simply nodded in solid, mostly unanimous agreement with their master’s plan. After all, the power and potential of Kingdom Hearts was beyond comprehension, said to be able to do just about anything and everything imaginable. Regardless of whatever Xehanort wanted that incredibly power for, more than a few members already had their own ideas in mind for what they’d use even a fraction of it. Ideas that, as far as most of them were concerned, were more than worth the effort it would take to track the Keys to the Kingdom down and bring them back to Xehanort so he could pull it all together for them.

“I am certain that the guardians of light will soon be made aware of the prophecy of the Keys, if they’re not already,” the master continued. “But even if they do intend to search for them, they shall be far outnumbered. Scatter yourselves among the worlds and do whatever you must to secure those Keys for the darkness. And as I said before…” Xehanort glowered down at his members warningly, barely even needing to remind them just what was at stake if they failed to do as he said. “Be aware of the price for disappointing me. Inasmuch as I brought each of you back, I can just as easily take all that I have returned to you away again. And so, with that in mind… go! Go and bring forth both the Keys and the Kingdom for us all!”

On this stern command, most of the Organization members readily complied, not hesitating to disappear into dark portals so they could prepare to set out to do just that. The master watched with a satisfied smile as they all departed, including his own Heartless, Nobody, and younger self, each heading off on their own with their primary mission clear. However, only a handful of them currently knew of the other prize they were seeking, one that they could only just keep a close eye on from afar for now. Though Xehanort was certain that, with enough time, perception, and patience on his part, then all the pieces would soon fall perfectly into place, just as they did once before.

“‘Go and bring forth the Keys and the Kingdom for us all’, huh? Good one. I gotta admit, you nearly had me going right along with everyone else with that. And maybe I might have if I was even half as stupid as any of them are.”

The elderly master’s lingering grin faded somewhat as he raised an eyebrow down at the only remaining member in the room sitting several seats away from him. “I do believe I just issued an absolute order to everyone present,” Xehanort said coldly. “Which means you are free to go as well, Vanitas.”

The masked boy scoffed as he leaned back in his chair a bit, making no apparent effort to depart whatsoever. “Like I just said, I would have left right along with the rest of them,” he began bluntly. "If I hadn’t already caught onto exactly what kind of game you’re playing at, old man.”

“And what ‘game’ might that be?” Xehanort asked almost boredly as he rolled his eyes.

“You and I both know that you don’t have any plans of sharing Kingdom Hearts if you really do end up getting your hands on it,” Vanitas pointed out plainly. “A prize like that is far too enticing to just split up like that, especially for someone like you whose been after it for so long. I don’t know how you managed to get all those idiots to believe you, but believe me when I say that you’re not fooling me.”

Xehanort initially said nothing to this, instead simply sending the masked boy a rather piercing look of disapproval before ultimately deciding to pass his brazenness off as mere hyperbole. “So I suppose you find yourself quite clever for figuring that out, don’t you?” he asked, his confident smirk returning only slightly. “No matter. The other seekers shall still go and search out the Keys to the Kingdom all the same. And in the same way, so too shall you fulfill your purpose, Vanitas, by locating Ventus, joining your heart together with his, and finally forging the X-Blade for your master. And this time you will not fail me as you did last time. Do you understand?”

Vanitas didn’t respond, instead opting to glance away from his master as he crossed his arms stoically. Xehanort’s already somewhat impatient scowl deepened at this at this impertinence as he repeated himself much more firmly this time. “I said do you understa-”

“Understand? Yes,” Vanitas interupted, the bitter sarcasm in his tone excruciatingly clear. “Care? No.” With that, the masked boy leapt down from his seat with the apparent intention of leaving. “You really think that grand scheme of yours is actually gonna work this time? Face it, old man, you couldn’t get Kingdom Hearts to be yours back then, Ansem couldn’t get it to be his, and neither could Xemnas. You’re all exactly the same, in every way imaginable. Just a bunch of blind, ego-driven men stuck on the same stupid plan that never seems to work! Which is why I’m surprised I’m the only one who’s tired of waiting on you to deliver on something you’ll never be able to obtain, even with the X-Blade, even with the Keys, even with all the other pawns you think you have set up so nicely to help you in what’s ultimately gonna be just another losing battle. So forget it; I’m done.” Without even sparing Xehanort another single word, Vanitas turned to make his succinct and sour exit, though before he could make much of an attempt to summon a dark corridor, his leave was expectedly interupted by the master himself.

Vanitas deftly leapt out of the path of a powerful burst of darkness, one that came from Xehanort’s hand as the master stood atop his high throne, glaring icily down at the masked boy below him. “I’m afraid you don’t have the option of being ‘done’,” he remarked, his Keyblade easily appearing in his hand. In an instant, the master sped down from his elevated perch with frightening speed, his blade poised for attack. Vanitas only had mere seconds to summon his own Keyblade so that he could properly block Xehanort’s brutal swing, but even so, it still pushed him back across the room’s central platform by several feet all the same.

“So…” the masked boy began, somewhat breathless from the surprise of the attack as he repositioned himself to properly square off against his master. “We’re back to this again, huh?”

“I’ve found that it always was the best way to get either you or Ventus to behave,” Xehanort mused calmly as darkness began to swirl around his Keyblade.

“Hmph, like that straight-edged loser even has a rebellious bone in his body,” the masked boy deadpanned haughtily as he referred to his other half. Acting on adrenaline alone, he rushed forward, Keyblade at the ready before he sent its edge swinging hard at his mister. Xehanort countered the strike easily, kicking Vanitas back once more before rushing in for yet another barrage of unforgiving attacks. The masked boy only barely blocked most of them, though a few of them landed hard and painfully, even if they still weren’t quite enough to completely wear him down. Still, despite his age, Xehanort was stilled and strong, his abilities with his Keyblade far surpassing Vanitas’ own, however formidable that might have been. He well knew from experience that he’d only be able to hold his own in a struggle like this up against his master for so long and it was quickly becoming apparent that this fight would be no exception.

After lashing out with another merciless swing, Xehanort decided to keep his Keyblade pressed tightly against Vanitas’, knowing that the friction would inevitably wear the masked boy down, as much as he tried to push back against it. “You realize just as much as I do that this bout of petty rebellion is absolutely meaningless, do you not?” the master asked, glaring down at his apprentice harshly. “If you do not pursue Ventus and join again with him to form the X-Blade, then you will forever remain an incomplete, empty being of nothing more than directionless darkness. Act as impertinent as you’d like, but you cannot deny that I am the only one who can help you become whole again.”

Put off by such an arrogant assumption, Vanitas shoved his Keyblade back hard, surprising even Xehanort, but still not enough for him to relinquish his steady hold. “Its amazing how someone who claims to know so much can be so wrong about so many things,” the masked boy remarked bitingly. “I don’t need you to find Ventus. I never needed you. Face it, old man: if you really want that X-Blade, then you’re the one who needs me.”

That final bold statement was easily enough to set Xehanort off even more than he already was, an impressive feat to be sure. In his tranquil rage, the master brought his Keyblade down in a sudden, calculated swing, one that the masked boy was unable to properly deflect this time. Vanitas was thrown back once more by the incredible force of the attack, to the point that he barely even noticed the small, but sizable crack that had started to form across his mask as the result of it. Somehow, its glass surface didn’t break, but all the same, Xehanort showed no signs of letting up anytime soon.

“Perhaps you did not hear what I told the others,” the master said darkly, standing over his injured apprentice threateningly. “I restored you to your pitiful existence, even after the disappointment you proved to be years ago. But it’d be just as easy for me to take you out once again and replace you with much more… suitable candidates.” At this, Xehanort rose his Keyblade, hovering it over Vanitas with the intent of bringing it down in a devastating blow in a moment’s notice if he didn’t get his way. “Which is why I will only tell you this one final time: you will forge the X-Blade for me or you will face obliteration once more. And this time, I will not be as merciful as to give you another chance again. It’s your choice.”

Initially, it seemed as though Vanitas was actually going to comply with his master’s demands as he said nothing, simply hanging his head in what almost looked like begrudging acceptance. That is, until he managed to pull off the only trick he had up his sleeve that could actually work to put some distance between himself and Xehanort’s deadly Keyblade. An immense pall of darkness surged around the masked boy and from that darkness, a swarm of creatures, both big and small, though all composed of the same shadowy malice, emerged: the Unversed.

The massive wave of monsters was more than enough to push Xehanort back, finally giving Vanitas enough time to pick himself up and leap out of the fray. Of course, the master made quick work of the rampaging Unversed, but by then, his apprentice had already safely distanced himself by leaping onto one of the higher chairs and summoning a dark corridor to make a hasty retreat.

“Oh, believe me, I am going to forge the X-Blade,” Vanitas assured, his tone icy as he turned to face his now-former master one last time. “But when I do, I can guarantee that you’ll be the last person to ever get your hands on it, ‘Master’…” And, without bothering to spare another word on Xehanort, the masked boy disappeared into the darkness, ready to act on his own ambitions for a change instead of those of his faltering, vindictive master.

“Hmph,” Xehanort scoffed to himself, still standing in the center of the Round Room as his Keyblade disappeared. “Insolent whelp. No matter…” The master was quick to teleport back to his usual elevated seat, his contented, calculated grin returning as he thought back to his steadily-developing plans. “He cannot stop what is destined to transpire. The Keys, the Kingdom, and of course, the thirteenth vessel shall all soon fall into my hands, one by one.” Xehanort’s smirk widened as he set his sights on the lowest-bearing seat across from him, still as empty as it had been before, though he could already sense that it wouldn’t remain that way for long. “Isn’t that right… Sora?”

Chapter Text

He was a no one
(A zero, zero)
Now he's a honcho
(He's a hero!)
Here was a kid with his act down pat!
From zero to hero in no time flat!
Zero to hero just like that!

In all their past expeditions to Olympus, Sora, Donald, and Goofy usually spent most of their time at the world’s iconic coliseum. The arena’s tall and stately structure was a favorite haunt for the trio, as was the world it was contained in as a whole, for all the grand adventures and heroic exploits they’d shared there. Training to measure up as true heroes under Phil, rushing to protect Meg from the perils of the treacherous Underworld, fighting alongside Hercules to foil Hades’ sinister schemes. All were fond memories for the trio, memories that they thought would come rushing right back to them in full force upon arriving at the familiar coliseum.

Or at least they would have if they had actually arrived at the coliseum.

For upon embarking from the Gummi Ship, Sora, Donald, and Goofy found themselves not before the arena’s statue-guarded entrance, but rather on a lush outcropping halfway up a mountain so tall its distant peak seemed to pierce the sky itself. Needless to say that the trio was certain they had landed in Olympus, they were still aptly confused by the unfamiliar scenery, with nary a coliseum or Underworld for that matter in sight.

“What? No fanfare?” Sore spoke up first, pretending to blow a trumpet to emphasize his point. Donald sent him something of a caustic look before shaking his head while Goofy stepped forward to try to get a better look at their newfound surroundings.

“Nope,” the captain confirmed. “Looks like we missed the coliseum.”

“Sora, you’re the one who opened the gate!” Donald scolded the Keybearer impatiently. “I thought you knew where we were going this time!”

“I was… a little off again,” Sora grinned apologetically. “Sorry! We’ll find him, but we need to go!”

“Up the mountain?” Donald asked as Sora already began heading in that direction.

“Yeah,” the Keybearer glanced back over his shoulder briefly. “‘Up’ is the usual direction.”

“Well, it never hurts to have your head in the clouds!” Goofy quipped optimistically.

“That’s the spirit!” Sora exclaimed brightly, running on ahead. Goofy couldn’t help but let out an amused chuckle as he went to follow him, though Donald sighed, already somewhat exasperated by the levity his companions often shared when they were supposed to be taking thing seriously. Still, the magician was quick to hurry after the pair, trudging the worn and craggy path ahead towards wherever it might lead.

“Whoa…” Sora mused, amazed as they passed into a wide-open, mosaic-adorned area. “I can’t believe Herc’s world is so huge!”

“Well, the past few times we’ve been here we were pretty busy,” Goofy pointed out. “Guess we didn’t get much of a chance to go explorin’.”

“That’s a good thing!” Donald asserted firmly. “The less exploring we do, the less of a chance we have to mess up the world order by mistake!”

“Seriously, Donald?” Sora asked with a wry smirk. “Are you ever gonna let go of that whole ‘world order’ thing?”

“No, I won’t!” the magician fussed, sending the Keybearer a disapproving glare. “You should know by now that it’s important!”

“Hey, I do know,” Sora protested, casually perching his hands behind his head. “You don’t ever see me going around messing with the order of things, do you?”

Upon hearing this, Donald and Goofy exchanged a knowing glance, both of them well aware of Sora’s regular tendency to get himself (and by extension both of them) involved in the affairs of other worlds when they really should have just left things well enough alone. Even so, neither of them could really fault him for it; despite the fact that such behavior could indeed be considered “meddling”, there was no question that Sora’s heart was always in the right place. Whenever they did involve themselves in the problems of a given world, it was usually for the sake of helping those within that world as a whole or at the very least whatever new acquaintances they happened to make along the way. It was through that enthusiastic altruism, typically spearheaded by Sora, that the trio made some of their most invaluable friends and allies, including the very legendary hero they had come to this world to see.

It didn’t take very long for the trio to emerge onto another elevated range, one that gave them a clear, full picture of the sprawling valley far below. Yet as awe-inspiring as the view admittedly was, it still wasn’t really giving any of them too much to go off of when it came to determining their exact location.

“Ya know, fellas,” Goofy spoke up with a frown. “I think we might be goin’ in circles…”

“Sora…” Donald huffed as he looked to the Keybearer who had been leading the way.

“Did I make a turn at the wrong rock or something?” Sora muttered, also quite bewildered. All the same, since a cursory inspection of the area wasn’t really giving them any results, he decided to step forward with a more direct way of tracking the legendary hero down. “Hey, Hercules!” he shouted into the valley in the hopes that the hero might hear him. “Where are youuu?”

While Hercules himself was still nowhere to be found to offer a response to this call, someone else had heard it in his stead, and that someone was sure to make his displeasure with it quite clear the moment he touched down behind the trio in a heavy cloud of dark smoke. “All right. I know I dotted my I’s, crossed my T’s, zeroed the hero. So what gives? Who could possibly be trying to give me a migraine by yodeling that yutz’s name!?”

Though most would have likely cowered in fear in the presence of the lord of the dead himself, Sora, Donald, and Goofy merely let out a shared disappointed sigh upon being met with this reoccurring foe yet again. “Really? Hades?” Sora asked with a disappointed scowl.

“Oh, its just you,” Hades huffed, just as disgruntled to see the trio as they were to see him. “Oy vey…”

Just us?” Sora repeated, hands on his hips. “Even for you that’s cold.”

“Yeah, well don’t forget!” Hades snapped harshly. “I can always turn up the heat!”

“Wait a sec…” Goofy interjected, glancing around curiously. “If Hades is here, then where’s Herc?”

“What is everyone’s infatuation with that DOLT!?” Hades growled, his blue flames spiking red with rage at the mere mention of the legendary hero. All the same, the lord of the dead was quick to calm himself down, especially when he considered his already-rapidly unfolding plans. “You know what? Never mind, never mind. I’m cool, I’m good. Because… Wonderboy will be outta my hair soon enough…”

“So you’re up to no good again!” Sora assumed, already readily summoning his Keyblade.

“Of course he is,” Goofy agreed as him and Donald also pulled out their respective weapons.

“You bet!” the magician added, holding his staff warningly as they all glared the lord of the dead down.

“Whoa, easy,” Hades remarked, glancing back at the battle-ready trio. “What is this, Sparta? Kind of on a schedule here. Don’t have time to toss around the ol’ fire and brimstone. The whole cosmos is basically waiting for me to, y’know, conquer it! So I better not leave it hanging.”

“Poor Hades,” Sora remarked with little sympathy as the lord of the dead began to head off. “He really thinks he can actually pull it off this time.”

“He’s gotta know that the three of us and Hercules are gonna stop him again,” Donald added just as confidently.

“Not this time, you’re not!” Hades shot back as he turned his gaze up towards the towering mountain itself. “Where are my Titans?!” he called commandingly. “Show me your power!”

Despite their previous doubts, Sora, Donald, and Goofy all jolted in surprise as the stony ground beneath their feet began to tremble violently at this demand. Likewise, the gentle blue skies ahead turned dark and stormy, heralding the arrival of not one, but four massive, unimaginable terrors. Nature itself seemed to go completely haywire at their arrival, the ongoing earthquake still rattling the mountain as deadly molten lava spilled down from its peak. A frigid, icy chill, carried by a brutal, blustery gust tore through the air and in the center of all this chaos stood Hades, absolutely reveling in the sheer destructive potential his Titans were showing. “Ah! Love the breeze!” the lord of the dead sighed with a wide, sinister grin as he looked behind him again. “Don’t you, fellas?”

Neither Sora, Donald, nor Goofy had much of a chance to respond amidst the practically deafening winds, which they were all having quite a hard time standing against. The force of the supernatural gale was relentless, and despite the trio’s best efforts, it soon proved to be too much for them. In one fell swoop, they were all thrown clear off the mountain, the winds catapulting them upward and out from the outcropping towards what would likely be a painful landing in the distant valley miles below.

And then, just as quickly as the elemental tumult had begun, it came to an end on Hades’ succinct command. The lord of the dead’s smug grin was still apparent as he looked off to where the trio had been blown away, satisfied that they wouldn’t impede his plans this time. “Ah, that sent em’ sailing,” Hades mused, though his smile quickly fell as he took a moment to realize exactly where the trio was likely headed. “Sailing right to where I left… Eh, no biggie.” The lord of the dead shrugged, unconcerned as he turned back to the quartet of monsters hanging around the mountain high above him. “Nice work, boys! So, back to the whole cosmic coup thing?”

As always, the Titans heeded their lords’ command, trudging their way back up to the home of the gods on the mountain’s peak so they could take it as their own. Hades gladly saw them off, though his formerly aggravated manner returned in full force as he sensed a dark corridor open up not too far behind him. “Ugh… really?” he asked with a begrudging sigh. “Are you kidding? Geez louise, when it rains it pours. Ok, who’s the new pest?”

“Hey, now! That ain’t no way to say hello, ‘specially to your old friends.”

“Oh perfect…” Hades scowled as he turned around to face the pair stepping out of the dark portal. “Now I gotta put up with you two.”

“You needn’t worry,” Maleficent assured, her expression as dour as ever. “We’ve no intentions of wasting your no-doubt… valuable time.”

“Yeah, we just dropped by to ask ya somethin’ real quick,” Pete added with a brazen smirk.

“Oh yeah?” Hades raised an eyebrow. “Funny, I don’t remember either of you two doing me any memorable favors. So you can keep your Heartless this time, and your cockamamie questions to yourselves. I’m going back to my original plan. All right? So… toodle-oo! Exit’s thataway! Hey, it was great seein’ ya. Happy traaaaails!”

“We’re not here to aid in your small-minded schemes,” the dark fairy countered calmly. “I have my own business to attend to. All I need to know is if there is a distinctive… black box… somewhere in this world.”

“Black box, huh?” Hades repeated rather boredly. “Hm… black box, black box, black box… Wait. Don’t tell me… you’re after the one Zeus hid on Earth?”

“…Possibly,” Maleficent said vaguely. “If I were, where might it be?”

“I dunno,” Hades shrugged apathetically. “Somewhere down in Thebes, I guess. Not sure what a power-hungry broad like you would want with some dumb ol’ trinket of a box like that though.”

“Huh? Are you sayin’ that this box is tiny or somethin’?” Pete asked, dismayed as he turned to Maleficent for confirmation. “I thought you said what we’re lookin’ for is supposed to be this big sorta treasure-chest type thing!”

“Quiet, you fool,” the dark fairy hissed, not wanting to tip the lord of the dead, or anyone else for that matter, off to what she was really searching for. “Its size and appearance matters not. After all…” she kept her voice lowered down at a whisper as she smirked darkly. “The most unassuming vessels can often hold the most… unpredictable power within them…”

“Hey, not that this isn’t an absolute blast or anything,” Hades interjected somewhat impatiently. “But I kinda have things to do, enemies to thrash, the whole nine yards, you know how it is. So… are we done here?”

“Yes…” Maleficent nodded as she summoned another dark corridor to take her leave. “I believe we are.”

“Great, see ya around,” the lord of the dead deadpanned with a halfhearted wave as he finally left, though not without ranting to himself the entire time. “Geez, not even a thank-you for the tip about the stupid box? Getting outta her payroll was one of the best things you ever did for yourself, Hades, that’s for sure…”

“So…” Pete spoke up once Hades was out of earshot. “Ya really think that box he was talkin’ about was the one we’re after?”

“We shall see for ourselves…” Maleficent said simply as she walked into the dark portal, her henchman hurrying right along after her. “Come along, Pete. I believe our search has only just begun…”


 

The city of Thebes was a vast, sprawling Grecian metropolis, sitting in the safety of the shadow of Mount Olympus itself. However, that safety seemed to be doing nothing for it now as the town was currently in a complete and utter upheaval. Hades had launched a devastating attack upon it, sending fire raining down from the sky and monsters out to scour the streets. The city had already seen substantial damage in the past several hours alone, with plenty of structures having fallen victim to the ongoing chaos. Thebes’ citizens themselves were in just as much of a panic, scrambling to find any save haven they could to shelter themselves from the torrential destruction ravaging their home. And yet, amidst this grave devastation, the people still found they had one hope to rely on to rescue them from it all and restore peace once again: Hercules.

The legendary hero was in the midst of doing just that too as he had only just finished saving a group of civilians from a dangerous street fire. Hercules stood, perched atop a nearby building to take the briefest of breathers before throwing himself back into the frantic fray, fully aware that a hero’s work was never done. However, just before the hero could return to his regularly-scheduled rescuing, his attention was diverted by the emerging noise of three very distinct, very familiar cries of fearful alarm. And upon turning towards the source of these screams for himself, Hercules didn’t hesitate to leap into action to save his three peril-ridden friends.

In one swift, deft leap, Hercules caught both Sora and Goofy, halting their freefall and making a safe and stable landing with the pair in tow. “See? Told ya we’d find him!” Sora proclaimed only mere seconds after their landing.

“Yeah, guess this counts!” Goofy agreed just as heartily.

The legendary hero offered the pair a brief nod of greeting, though before he really had much of a chance to say hello, his attention was garnished by the only member of the trio he hadn’t successfully caught. “Hey! Get me down!” Donald squawked, struggling to free himself from the maw of the massive lion statue he had managed to land on.

“Just a second!” Hercules called, promptly setting Sora and Goofy down to retrieve the frustrated magician. And as soon as everyone was safe and settled on the ground, a proper reunion between the trio and the legendary hero took off almost immediately.

“Sora, Donald, Goofy! You guys are here!” Hercules exclaimed with a surprised, though excited grin. “You three literally dropped in. Gotta say, I’m impressed.”

“Thanks!” Donald retorted brightly.

“Liked the catch,” Goofy said just as enthusiastically.

“Yeah, thanks, Herc,” Sora nodded in apt agreement for the timely save. “But… what’s going on?” he asked, noting the destruction-ravaged streets around them, smoldering piles of rubble still burning bright in seemingly every direction.

“Take a guess,” the legendary hero sighed in clear exasperation. “Starts with an H…”

“Ah,” Sora crossed his arms, already knowing well who Hercules was referring to. “I get the picture. Actually, we bumped into the H-ster on the way here.”

“He said somethin’ about conquerin’ the whole cosmos,” Goofy added a touch more seriously.

“All of it, huh?” Hercules asked sardonically, hardly phased by Hades’ latest grandiose scheme. “Nice of him to show a little self-restraint. Well, whatever he’s planning, I’ll send him running back across the Styx!”

“That’s our Herc!” Sora grinned, mimicking Hercules’ heroic pose.

The legendary hero couldn’t help but let out a small, amused chuckle at the Keybearer’s admirable zeal as he beckoned for the trio to help him investigate the nearby town center for any straggling civilians in danger. “So, Sora, is there a reason you guys are visiting?” Hercules asked, curious. “I’m guessing its not just for the cheese and olives.”

“Oh yeah!” Sora exclaimed in realization.

“Looks like somebody forgot,” Goofy teased lightly.

“That’s Sora for you,” Donald chided just as playfully.

“Hey, I didn’t forget!” Sora protested. “I just… took my time remembering. Besides, we were sort of busy dealing with Hades and being blown off a mountain and everything, so can you really blame me for getting distracted?”

“Yes,” Donald retorted, absolutely deadpan.

Anyway…” Sora said, sending the magician a pointed glare before he turned to Hercules and the matter at hand. “Herc, I came here because I wanted to ask you something.”

“Ask me?” the hero repeated, genuinely surprised.

“Yeah,” the Keybearer nodded resolutely. “Do you remember the last time we were together? You were feeling down and out. How’d you get your strength back when you jumped in and saved Meg?”

“Hm… that’s tough…” Hercules mused thoughtfully. “All I know is… that she was in trouble. Suddenly, I wanted to save her with all my heart, but… it’s not like I could really tell you how I did it exactly…”

“Oh man…” Sora sighed in clear disappointment. After all, they had come all this way seeking Hercules’ advice born from first-hand experience. But if even the hero didn’t know how to explain the rise from his own fall, then how was Sora supposed to follow in his footsteps and do the same for himself.

“What’s wrong?” Hercules asked, concerned upon noticing the Keybearer’s obvious dejection.

Sora glanced down, his usual upbeat manner solemn and remorseful as he filled the hero in. “A-all my strength left me too…” he admitted, almost ashamed to say it out loud. “That’s why I wanted to find you—I was hoping you might have a solution or some advice or… something.”

“Oh…” Hercules frowned sympathetically. “I’m sorry, Sora. But… for what its worth, I’m sure you’ll find a way to regain that lost strength of yours somehow. After all, I’ve seen you pull off crazier things than that.”

Though it was really a rather small sentiment, Sora couldn’t help but perk up somewhat upon receiving the hero’s vote of confidence. However, before he had a chance to thank Hercules for it, the conversation was sharply interupted from a stark warning from Donald.

“Heartless!” the captain cried, pointing to the stormy skies above. Sure enough, raining down like meteors from the heavens was a horde of flaming Heartless, each of which crashed into the square before the trio and the hero with heavy force. One such impact struck the side of the town’s centerpiece, a large, finely-sculpted statue of Hercules himself, built to honor the hero and his labors. Despite its sturdy structure, it easily toppled over from the blow, slamming to the ground and adding even more destruction onto what the already rampaging group of Heartless were bringing about as they blasted their brimstone around the square wildly.

“We’ll talk later!” Hercules exclaimed, already taking up a fighting stance against the creatures as the trio prepped their respective weapons for the melee ahead.

“Right,” Sora agreed, tightening his grip on his Keyblade. “Once we’ve dealt with these guys.”

And with that, the fight was on. Upon noticing the group taking opposition against them, the Heartless quickly swarmed, a number of them rushing forward with their forms flaming and ready to attack. But for as threatening as the creatures of darkness attempted to be, they were met with a group that was more than used to squaring off against them by now. Since he was already filled with adrenaline from his ongoing efforts of protecting the town, Hercules leapt into the fray first, his sheer physical strength serving him well as he tossed the Heartless around as though they were little more than dead weight. Though it had admittedly been awhile since either of them had actively engaged in combat, Donald and Goofy were also quick to get back into the swing of things as the captain plowed his shield into the creatures while the magician blasted off a barrage of spells to take them down.

Likewise, Sora rushed into battle just as confidently, Keyblade at the ready, though almost immediately, he noticed that his swings were nowhere near as he knew they could be. He wasn’t pulling any punches in his attacks (he rarely ever did), but all the same the Keybearer still felt slower, weaker even, and he had a strong suspicion as to why. The flaming Heartless they were facing was certainly a weaker subset of them, one that could be easily taken out by merely a well-timed water spell; but even after casting several such spells, Sora found that very few of the creatures skittering around him were actually going down, much to his growing frustration. And as distracted as the Keybearer was by the group of Heartless directly in front of him, he didn’t even notice the creature bounding up behind him until it launched a fiery burst directly at him, one that he knew, in the brief second he glanced over his shoulder to see it, he’d have no time to deflect.

Fortunately, Sora didn’t have to as Goofy ended up doing the job for him. The dangerous flames struck the captain’s shield squarely, and in retaliation, he launched his weapon straight at the offending Heartless, defeating it easily. “Look alive, Sora!” Goofy reminded good-naturedly as he hurried off to help Donald square off against another group.

“That’s funny, I thought I was…” Sora huffed, somewhat disgruntled even if he was still grateful for the timely save.  

With their numbers already steadily going down, the rest of the Heartless were relatively easier work for the group to thin out. However, just when it seemed as though their work was about over while they were collaborating on clearing out the last few straggling creatures, an all new cause for alarm came to their attention from, of all places, above.

“Hercules!” the familiar cry prompted the entire group to turn around to see none other than Pegasus, toting both Meg and Phil, soaring in towards the square. However, Meg’s fearful shout was soon understood when the group on the ground spotted the swarm of winged Heartless hovering around them.

“Augh! Will ya annoying little schmucks get outta here already?!” Phil yelled as he made as much of an attempt to swat the attacking creatures away.

“How about a little help up here, huh?!” Meg called to the group below as she did her best to steer Pegasus to safety.

“Meg! Phil!” Hercules exclaimed, immensely concerned for the pair and the peril they were in. Without hesitation, the hero leapt high as Pegasus flew in low, allowing him to clock several of the Heartless clean out of the air, though plenty more still remained.

“Come on, Sora!” Donald urged as him and Goofy began running on ahead to do whatever they could to assist the hero. “We gotta help them!”

Upon receiving no immediate response from the Keybearer, the pair was quick to take pause, knowing that he was usually the first to run headlong to the rescue of just about anyone in danger. And yet, when they glanced back to check on Sora, they were both quite surprised and worried to see that he seemed to be absolutely winded from their recently-ended scuffle; the tip of his Keyblade was digging into the cobblestone ground as he leaned against it for support, his clothes, skin, and hair all lightly singed thanks to the formerly flaming Heartless as he struggled to catch his breath and recover from the relatively short skirmish.

“Sora?” Goofy asked as both him and Donald turned to face the exhausted Keybearer fully, letting Hercules handle the rest of the Heartless above. “Are you ok?”

As soon as he noticed the fretful glances his companions were sending his way, Sora was quick to snap upright, forcing a reassuring smile even if he was still quite breathless from all the exertion. “Y-yeah! I’m… I’m fine!”

“Are ya sure?” the captain pressed. “You seem kinda tired…”

“W-who, me?” Sora scoffed as steadily as he could. “No way! I… I’m just a little… a little out of p-practice is all! But I-I’ll get over it! Now, c’mon, we… we gotta help Herc save Meg a-and-”

“Actually,” the hero interjected as he landed back down before the trio, motioning to Pegasus safely doing the same behind him. “I think I got just about all of them. I appreciate the enthusiasm though.”

“Aw man…” Sora muttered to himself, disappointed largely with his limits, which were, by all accounts, much lower than he would have liked them to be.

“Hercules!” Meg exclaimed, immensely relieved as she hopped off the winged horse to rush to the hero and engulf him in a tight embrace. “You’re ok!”

I’m ok?” Hercules laughed as he returned her hug. “I should be saying that about you since you guys were the ones who nearly just got knocked out of the sky just now.”

“Eh, we would’ve been just fine with just me smackin’ them freaks around,” Phil remarked as sardonically as ever. “Not that I can’t give ya any points for the flashy rescue, kid,” the satyr joked, elbowing his former pupil’s leg playfully.

“Yeesh…” Meg remarked, glancing around the decimated square as she parted away from the hero. “Whatever happened here doesn’t look so fun…”

“No, not with the Heartless involved,” Hercules shook his head before he glanced over at the trio with a grin. “We’re just lucky our friends showed up to help out.”

“Well, whaddaya know?” Meg said as she offered the trio a wry smirk of greeting. “Sora, Donald, Goofy, I guess we owe you a big thank you.”

“Hey, anytime!” Sora assured brightly, having mostly recovered from the preceding fight.

“Oy, kid, you ain’t lookin’ so hot,” Phil noted, commenting on the Keybearer’s still rather battle-worn appearance. “You sure you’ve been keepin’ up with your hero training like I told ya to the last time you were here?”

“O-of course I have!” Sora protested defensively. “In fact, that’s why we came here in the first place: to get stronger.”

“Like Hercules!” Donald added.

“Aw, c’mon, you guys…” Hercules rebuffed with a humble chuckle.

“Yeah, well luckily for you, I trained the best of the best,” Phil concluded, looking to the hero with a proud smirk. “Who knows? Maybe someday you three will end up at least getting’ somewhere close to catching up do ‘im.”

“Hey!” the trio exclaimed in faux offended unison.

“Alright, alright, the last thing we need is another fight breaking out around here, you four,” Hercules interjected, his laughter dying down as he turned back to Meg with renewed seriousness. “Meg, you need to stay someplace safe. We’ll search the city and make sure everyone manages to stay clear of the fire.”

Meg nodded in agreement with this plan, though even still, her expression alone conveyed her worry easily. “Be careful, Wonderboy,” she urged fretfully.

“I will,” the hero assured, leaning in to give her a brief kiss on the forehead before turning back to the trio. “So, you guys in?”

“Of course, we’re in!” Sora exclaimed readily, as his companions nodded in solid agreement.

“We’re heroes!” Donald proclaimed proudly.

“Mm-hm!” Goofy agreed just as enthusiastically.

“Eh, I still think you three are a little wet behind the ears,” Phil remarked, eying the trio critically. “But you’re gettin’ there.”

“Break a leg then, ‘heroes’,” Meg said, sending the group a playful salute as she began making her way back over to Pegasus.

“Phil, you should go with Meg,” Hercules said to his former trainer who nodded dutifully to the task.

“Don’t worry, kid,” the satyr grinned bravely. “I’ll keep an eye on her. And if any more of those pesky puntzes attack us, I’ll put ‘em in their place!”

“Then we better hope none of them show up or else we’ll all be in for trouble,” Meg deadpanned, eliciting an annoyed glare from Phil as he climbed onto Pegasus behind her.

Hercules briefly joined them to give his loyal steed a steadying pat, confident that he’d do well in keeping protecting them from the danger still besetting Thebes. “You gotta keep her safe,” he said sternly, to which Pegasus nodded with clear assurance that he would.

And with that, the horse opened his wings wide, leaping high and taking flight with the intent of carrying Meg and Phil to safety, just as Hercules had said. Despite the distance between them, the hero couldn’t help but smile as he saw them off, relieved to know that the person he cared for most would be out of harm’s way. However, the group barely even had a chance to rest easy in that fact before yet another fearful plea rang out across the otherwise empty square.

“Heeeelp! Is anyone theeeere?”

“Hey! I hear a voice!” Goofy alerted, pointing towards the source of the cry. The others looked over in that direction only to find quite an alarming sight: a young girl, likely no older than ten, had somehow ended up stranded upon a tall pile of rubble overlooking the city center. She pressed up close to the stony wall behind her, clearly terrified of the perilous situation she was in, especially with the flames scorching that part of the town starting to press in just below her.

“Oh no! There’s a little girl caught in the fire!” Hercules warned the others urgently.

“Then let’s go!” Sora exclaimed, already hurrying on ahead, eager to do whatever he could to both help and build his lost strength up again.

“Wait! Running’s too slow!” Hercules cut in succinctly.

“Then what’s the other choice?” the Keybearer asked incredulously as he slid to a stop.

The legendary hero took pause, glancing around the smoldering square for a possible solution before finding one lying only just a few feet away. “Get on that,” Hercules grinned to the trio as he pointed to his own fallen statue. Sora, Donald, and Goofy exchanged a brief, confused glance, but none of them pressed the hero any further on what his plan could be, all three of them trusting that whatever it was, it would hopefully be bound to work.

And so the trio quickly scaled the statue, perching themselves upon its stone cape as they waited to see whatever it was Hercules intended on doing next. “Is this safe?” Donald asked somewhat apprehensively, glancing down from their spot on the statue.

“Hope so,” Goofy shrugged, ready for anything, as usual.

“You ready down there?” Sora asked, calling down to Hercules below.

“Sure am!” the hero assured as he got a good and steady grip on the bottom of the state. “Now, hold on tight!”

The trio did so, still not sure of what the hero’s plan was until they felt the statue suddenly move beneath them, much to their shared alarm. “W-whoa!” Sora exclaimed, aptly startled as he held onto the statue tighter. “Herc, m-maybe we should-”

Before the Keybearer had a chance to finish, Hercules had already hoisted the entire statue, which was at least several times his size, above his head, barely even breaking a sweat from the immense weight of it, much to the fearful bafflement of the trio clinging onto its upper side. Yet despite their shaken cries, the hero kept up his steady stance, carefully taking aim and, with a single mighty throw, he launched the entire statue hard and high into the air, sending it and the three passengers riding atop it, soaring towards the other side of the city. It was yet another perilous flight for the trio to be sure, though surprisingly their landing wasn’t so harrowing as the statue skidded to a safe stop upon one of Thebes’ higher levels. The hero had indeed aimed true as it put them quite close to where the endangered girl was still awaiting rescue, and rescuing her was exactly what they did. Upon retrieving her from her elevated spot, the trio made sure to deposit her a good distance away from the fire, something she was certainly grateful for as she thanked the group before running off to find proper shelter, giving Sora, Donald, and Goofy a much-needed moment to relax.

“Well, that could’ve gone a lot worse than it did,” Donald remarked, glancing back to the landed statue several feet away.

“What are we supposed to do now?” Goofy asked curiously, glancing around the largely empty area.

“I guess we might as well go check and see if anyone else needs us,” Sora suggested with a shrug. “Maybe see if we can catch up with Herc again along the way?”

Donald and Goofy both nodded in agreement to such a solid plan of action, however, before any of them could so much as make a move to enact it, they were distracted by a rather unexpected, rather alarming arrival instead. “Well, well… if it isn’t Sora and the king’s pawns…”

The trio shared a startled gasp as they all spun around, immediately on the defensive as they watched the pair of old foes emerge from a dark corridor. “Maleficent! Pete!” Sora exclaimed, instantly summoning his Keyblade as Donald and Goofy did the same with their own weapons against the dastardly duo. “Let me guess: you two are the reason the Heartless are here, aren’t you?!”

“Certainly not,” Maleficent denied evenly. “We’ve come to this world on much more important business than merely spreading mindless chaos.”

“Oh yeah?” Sora asked suspiciously, still maintaining his offensive stance alongside his companions. “Like what?”

“That is absolutely no concern to you,” the dark fairy rebuffed with a haughty scowl.

“Say, Maleficent…” Pete interjected with a smug, almost goading grin as he looked over to the trio. “I dunno about his sidekicks, but Kid Keyblader here looks way punier than the last time we saw him. I say we finish him off while we still can. It’d be a piece of cake for sure!”

Upon hearing such callous, almost cruel remarks, Sora said nothing, even though a large part of him did want to fiercely argue against them. But instead, he simply tightened his grip on his Keyblade and glared at the wicked duo firmly, trying his best not to come across as weak, even though he knew that’s what they saw him as. He wondered how it was so apparently obvious to just about everyone, including even Maleficent and Pete, that his strength had been sapped to such an extensive degree. He could feel it, of course, in just how much of a struggle taking out what should have been even minor foes seemed to be for him now, just how much even the tiniest battles seemed to tire him out, just how much he was seeming to fall behind when he should have stood strong. So how then, was literally everyone else able to see that he wasn’t even half the Keyblade wielder he knew he could be anymore?

“Waste no time with the boy,” Maleficent said dismissively just before Donald or Goofy could say anything to Sora’s defense. “He’s inconsequential, as are his companions. We have a far more pressing matter to attend to.”

For a moment, Pete was admittedly confused by this, until he happened to remember why they had journeyed to this world in the first place. “Oh yeah! We gots to find that black box!”

“How many times do I have to tell you to be silent, you fool!” Maleficent snapped harshly before her henchman could get another word out. Her anger was still just as apparent as she turned back towards the trio, her longstanding disdain for them apparent through her expression alone. “As for you three: we shall meet again… when I have time for such trifles…”

And with that, the dark fairy turned to leave through the darkness from whence she came, though Pete did linger behind for just a moment more to taunt the Keybearer one more time. “Yeah, and you better get your act together before then! Later, twerps!”

“Wait!” Sora shouted, hurrying after the pair with the intent of putting a stop to whatever their unknown schemes were. Though of course, before he could reach them, their shadowy portal disappeared, leaving the trio alone and in the dark about whatever it is they could be up to.

With Pete and Maleficent both finally gone, Sora finally let out the disgruntled sigh he had been holding in for quite some time now. Neither Donald nor Goofy had to ask where they young companion’s sudden bout of melancholy was coming from, but it still certainly concerned them both all the same.

“Sora?” Donald spoke up first, his tone fretful, especially as he overheard Sora sigh once more. Even so, the Keybearer was quick to turn to the pair with a small, halfhearted smile, one that neither of them really bought.

“I-it’s fine,” he said, though he didn’t make eye contact with either of them as he did. “I can take it.”

“Garwsh, it sure don’t sound like it,” Goofy said knowingly. “Did Pete sayin’ those mean things bother ya?”

“N-no!” Sora protested, crossing his arms and glaring away. “Like I said, I’m fine! I can take it!”

“Don’t worry!” Donald reassured as encouragingly as he could. “You’re gonna get stronger!”

“Yeah! We know you!” Goofy added just as heartily. “You can take it!”

“That’s what I said!” Sora snapped, suddenly quite frustrated with the pair. After all, it was bad enough that their foes were going around calling him out for his newfound weakness, but for his own companions to be effectively talking down to him like this? It was more than a bit embarrassing and a bit annoying to say the least, even despite their kind intentions. “Ugh, can we just… stop talking about this already?” he sighed once more as he averted the duo’s surprised looks over his outburst. “We still have people we need to help, remember?”

Donald and Goofy couldn’t help but share a worried glance as Sora pressed his way past them, his expression bitter and his hands clenched into tight fists as he continued on ahead. Neither of them could really blame him for being so upset, but they were rather perplexed by the fact that their open encouragement had done basically nothing to help him this time when it usually did the trick. Of course, they both wanted to do whatever they could to support their young companion, just as they always had. But this was an issue that neither the captain nor the magician knew how to solve, a problem that was plaguing the two of them almost as much as it was plaguing Sora himself. And for as much as Donald and Goofy both wanted to help, they both fretfully realized that all they could really do, at least for now, was to stand by their young companion’s side, no matter what might come their way.


 

The rest of the trio’s trip through Thebes was, unsurprisingly, a perilous one. Sure enough, they managed to find and save several still-straggling townsfolk and escort them out of harm’s way. The Heartless and the town’s own crumbling infrastructure provided plenty of obstacles all their own, of course, as the trio dodged fire, falling pillars, and the shadowy monsters alike. While they did their best to try to avoid the Heartless altogether to save precious time, the few occasions in which they were forced to engage in combat against them were far from smooth encounters.

The creatures were fierce and plentiful, and with the trio already somewhat out of sync with each other as they were, fighting them only seemed to bring them more harm than good. For as many Heartless as they seemed to take down, the more hits they seemed to take, particularly for Sora, who was still clearly lagging behind despite his best efforts to get ahead. What made matters worse, however, was that he more or less outright refused any direct assistance from either Donald or Goofy whenever they offered it, save for the occasional bout of healing here and there to keep things going. For all intents and purposes, it seemed clear that the Keybearer was determined to prove to both of them and perhaps even to himself that his strength wasn’t completely gone after all. A mission that didn’t seem to working out that well as Sora only seemed to be running himself more and more ragged with each and every battle, though whenever either Donald or Goofy urged him to slow down, he either ignored them or stubbornly rebuffed them with clear, continued anger. But even so, despite his mounting frustration and his obvious exhaustion, the Keybearer pressed on ahead relentlessly, all in the hopes that his hard work would somehow get him past the weakness that he had no idea how to overcome otherwise.

Still, eventually, the trio managed to make it through most of Thebes’ rubble-laden, burning streets to end up in a space relatively close to the square where they had started. They were more than prepared to head back there in the hopes of meeting up with Hercules again, though it quickly became apparent that their attention was needed elsewhere as a rather large building—a temple to be exact—trembled violently right as they were passing by it. The trio only needed to exchange a brief nod of confirmation before they rushed into the lofty temple, only to not only find the hero they were looking for, but plenty of trouble surrounding him as well.

The temple had already fallen apart significantly, with flames and rubble filling its once pristine, sacred space. A few civilians had made an attempt to take up refuge there, but it was all for naught as the entire building seemed to be on the verge of collapse altogether. In fact, the only thing keeping it all from falling apart, as close as it was to that point, was none other than Hercules himself as he stood, strong yet struggling to hold the temple’s final, integral support beam from falling on them all.

“Herc!” Sora exclaimed, instantly alarmed to see the hero in sigh a plight.

“S-Sora!” Hercules called back as much as he was able to, even as the temple shook once again. It was clear that neither the hero nor the building would be able to hold out for too much longer, which was why the trio didn’t hesitate to hurry forward to help in any way they could. “H-hurry! We have to save these people!” Hercules ordered, his voice strained as he pushed back hard against the weight of the pillar he was holding up.

“Right!” Sora nodded as Donald and Goofy hurried ahead to pull the townsfolk out of immediate danger so they could begin escorting them out of the temple. “We’ll be right back to help-” The Keybearer cut himself off as matters suddenly went from bad to much, much worse. The temple shuddered once again, only this time, the quake came as the direct result of the horde of Heartless that happened to materialize directly in between the hero and the trio with the intent of causing even more destruction.

“Ok, seriously?!” Sora exclaimed, exasperated as he summoned his Keyblade for the oncoming fray. “I swear, Heartless have the worst timing!”

“C’mon, Sora!” Donald urged as him and Goofy did their best to keep the terrified townsfolk calm while still inching their way past the Heartless and towards the door. “We gotta get these people out of here!”

“Then go ahead and get them out already!” Sora retorted rather sharply as he turned back towards the struggling hero. “Herc, can you hold the building?”

“N-no problem!” Hercules assured with the most genuine grin he could muster, even despite the circumstances.

“Good,” Sora smiled back as he took up a determined, offensive stance against the encroaching creatures. “Then I’ll handle the Heartless!”

What?!” Donald and Goofy both gasped upon hearing such a risky plan, both of them completely adamant against it from the start.

“Sora, you can’t take on that many all by yourself!” Goofy exclaimed worriedly as he shielded the group civilians from a fiery attack.

“Let us help you!” Donald added a bit harsher, making his disapproval for the Keybearer’s recklessness clear.

“You guys are busy!” Sora called back as he landed a steady hit on one of the Heartless. “Just get those people to safety, ok? I’ll be fine on my own!”

“But Sora-” Goofy tried one more attempt at dissuading their young companion, only to be swiftly cut off.

“I said, I’ll be fine!” Sora practically shouted, clearly set off by their doubts as he rammed his Keyblade into yet another Heartless out of sheer anger alone. Donald and Goofy were clearly startled by his severe manner, and as a result of it, they knew: there’d be no arguing with him, not on something like this.

And so, as much as they didn’t like the idea of leaving the Keybearer alone at a time like this, the duo did as he said anyway, taking advantage of the distraction he was providing them with to skirt around the Heartless with the endangered civilians following right behind them. All the while, Sora forced himself to remain steady and alert, running on adrenaline more than anything else as he took the marauding creatures head-on. For the most part, he seemed to be holding his own, landing plenty of impact hits on the Heartless in relatively fast succession. Of course, the Keybearer really couldn’t accredit his current success to grit alone, for throughout the entire battle, he had been quietly reassuring himself, knowing that it was the most he could do to keep himself from faltering anymore than he already had.

“I can do this…” Sora whispered to himself as he slashed through one of the Heartless, miraculously defeating it altogether. Of course, several more appeared to take its place, but the Keybearer refused to let that phase him as he kept on fighting, occasionally sparing the briefest glance over at Hercules, who was certainly doing his part to hold everything else together on his end. “I can do this,” Sora told himself, a bit louder this time as he narrowly blocked a ball of fire with the broad side of his Keyblade. He retaliated swiftly by lashing out at the Heartless that had sent it, tearing through its shadowy form with a single deft swing. It was enough to give the Keybearer some much-needed confidence as he kept himself going, not even noticing as Donald and Goofy successfully finished escorting the civilians out and away from the temple as he kept up his kinetic pace. Though Sora knew he still had a ways to go before he returned to anywhere close to where he had been before the Mark of Mastery, he couldn’t help but hope that fighting fearlessly and passionately like this would eventually be what would get him back to where he knew he needed to be.

That is, until everything inevitably fell apart.

It began when he positioned his Keyblade to cast water to douse the flaming Heartless surrounding him. He called upon the spell and, though somewhat dulled from the strength it should have had, it still did the trick in stunning several of the creatures close by. Sora resumed his usual position as he prepared to tackle the vulnerable group, running forward as he decided to repeat his ongoing mantra, knowing that it was serving him well thus far. “I can do-”

The Keybearer never had a chance to finish. For right as he was about to complete his confident statement, the waterlogged Heartless he was rushing into attack sparked back to fiery life completely out of nowhere. Sora didn’t have any time to react outside of a startled gasp as the creature rammed into him, purposefully and violently, with enough force behind the heavy impact to send him flying towards the other side of the temple. He hit the far wall hard, and landed on the ground even harder, to the point that he was in something of a daze for what seemed like ages. Somewhere in the distance, he thought he heard Hercules (or maybe someone else?) call out for him, apparently alarmed, though he made no attempts to answer back. The crumbling temple around him and even the Heartless still gearing up for attack once more all seemed to fade out thanks to his swimming senses as he lay on the floor, half out of it entirely. But, if there was any one thing he was fully aware of, it was heat; a vast, deep, pinching kind of heat that only seemed to worsen with each passing second as it sparked along parts of his torso and his upper arms, the very same places the Heartless had hit him at. And as the acrid stench of ashy smoke began to mingle with that heat, Sora, ironically enough, froze up completely as he realized exactly where they both were coming from.

A fire. But not just the fire plaguing the temple in general. No, it was him. He was on fire.

As shocked and mindlessly horrified as Sora was by this stark realization, his body refused to cooperate with him as he tried to will it to move to douse the painful flames, especially as the intense burning spiked across his right arm in particular. So instead, he simply let out a small, strangled cry, not even caring that the noise would no doubt attract the Heartless, just as long as the pain, the heat, the smoke, everything just stopped somehow.

And miraculously enough, stop is exactly what it did.

Water!” Donald’s rather fierce shout rang out across the crumbling temple, angry and protective as he cast his magic quickly. And yet, the spell wasn’t for the Heartless, but rather for Sora, as a cool, refreshing torrent rained down upon him, soaking him to the bone but thankfully, finally putting out the fire. It did little to heal the rather significant burns left behind, but Sora was immensely grateful for it all the same as Donald helped prop him up against the wall while Goofy kept up the defensive against the Heartless.

“See!? We told you that you couldn’t take them on all by yourself!” the magician fussed hotly. “And now look what happened! Why do you always have to be so… so reckless!?”

Sora flinched, both from the pain and from the severity of Donald’s rant, knowing that though magician was quite prone to anger, he only ever got this angry on the worst of occasions. “I-I… I was just-”

“Save it!” Donald huffed, cutting him off sharply as he offered to help him stand. “There’s no time! We gotta get you outta here so I can heal you the right way!” the magician urged, knowing that such a potent spell needed enough time to cast and that, with hasty, dangerous conditions such as these, that sort of time wasn’t something they had at their disposal.

“W-wha… n-no!” Sora protested, weakly rising to stand on his own as he leaned against the wall for support. “We… we can’t go! W-we gotta…” he paused to let out a small groan of agony as he pressed his free hand against his scorched shoulder. “W-we have to stay and help Herc!”

“N-no, you don’t!” Hercules shouted from his spot on the other side of the temple. Despite the immense burden he was struggling to maintain, his expression was stern as he looked to the trio, even as his knees began to buckle under the weight pressed against him. “D-Donald, Goofy! Get Sora out of here and fix him up! I-I can handle this!”

“You heard him!” Goofy agreed as he rushed to help Donald support Sora so they could escort him out, since it was clear the Keybearer was in no condition to walk out on his own as injured as he was. “Its time for us to go!”

“B-but we can help!” Sora protested as he tried pulling away from his companions to stand on his own. It was a short-lived effort, however, as the Keybearer was quick to collapse to his knees as unsteady and lightheaded as he currently was. Pain sparked across the burn on his shoulder once more as he used his arms to catch himself, but even still, he stifled a cry of anguish so he could plead with the heavily-labored hero once more. “I—we… we want to help! P-please, Herc, you gotta let me, I-I mean us-”

“I-I said no, Sora!” Hercules chastised, though even still he spared the injured Keybearer a sympathetic glance before he let out another strained groan. “Y-you just gotta trust me on this… ok?”

“B-but…” Sora began quietly, desperately even. “But I-”

“That’s enough!” Donald shouted furiously as he grabbed the Keybearer by his injured arm.

“We gotta amscray before this whole place falls apart!” Goofy urged as he went to Sora’s other side, his manner filled with concern to balance out the magician’s fury.

“We can’t!” the Keybearer groaned, trying his hardest to pull away from the pair as they began essentially dragging him towards the door.

“Sora, stop fighting us on this!” Donald snapped fiercely. “We’re trying to save you!”

“I-I don’t need to be saved!” Sora argued as he resorted to thrashing to try and get out of his companion’s steady hold, though even so, it didn’t work.

“W-well, right now, ya kinda do,” Goofy countered rationally, though even so, the Keybearer wasn’t having it, especially as they neared the threshold of the temple. “Just sayin’…”

“Why?” Sora shot back, glaring fiercely over his shoulder at the pair. If either of them had stopped to return the glance, then they might have spotted a certain glint, the slightest discoloration in his eyes that would have likely made them stop dead in their tracks. But for as much of a rush as they were in to escape the crumbling temple as they were, that flash of warning yellow went unnoticed. For now at least. “Because I’m not ‘strong enough’ to save myself!? Because I’m too weak?!”

“S-Sora…” Goofy began, exchanging a rather uneasy glance with Donald as they finally slipped past the temple doors and into the yard in front of it. Out of the frying pan, and yet apparently still not out of the fire, even as they let their injured, angry young companion go.

“T-that’s just what everybody thinks anymore, isn’t it?!” Sora asked harshly, his pent-up frustrations all starting to pour out of him, the floodgates pried opened by both pain and doubt. “It… its not even my fault that all my strength is gone, but everyone just loves to act like it is!”

“S-Sora!” Donald cautioned as the Keybearer slowly began to pick himself up off the ground, even despite his still very-pressing burns.

Sora largely ignored both of his companions as he stood, his legs shaking along with the rest of his body really, from both ongoing agony and incensed rage. “B-but what nobody wants to see is that I’m trying!” he shouted, more to himself than anyone else as he turned to face the quaking temple again with renewed resolve. “I’m trying to get stronger! But no matter what I try to do, its just… never good enough!”

“Sora-” Goofy reached towards their young companion in an attempt at comforting him, only to be completely denied as the Keybearer took an unsteady step forward, relentlessly staring down the horde of Heartless still swarming about in the violently trembling temple just a few feet away.

“But I don’t care…” he said, his tone absolutely rigid as he somehow managed to summon his Keyblade, even despite his unattended wounds. “Because I’m gonna do it anyway. I’m going to get stronger, so that nobody—not you guys, not Riku, not Axel or the king or anyone else will ever have to save me ever again!”

“Sora!” both Donald and Goofy shouted in alarm as they noticed something that their companion, in all his intense frustration, didn’t. Before Sora could so much as even take another step, the pair grabbed him once again, jerking him back hard and pulling him out of the way just in the nick of time.

For almost exactly as they did, something within the temple finally snapped: the support beam, the thinning thread keeping the practically decimated building together slammed down into the structure’s interior. And, the moment it did, everything else fell apart along with it. Goofy rushed to cover his companions with his shield as they all fell to the ground from the resounding quake, thick dust flying up from every direction as the building before them began to crumble to pieces. It began slowly, a few pillars toppling over, bricks and mortar coming undone, but all too quickly the destruction unfolded in a devastating torrent.

And, in what seemed like seconds, the entire temple collapsed completely… with Hercules still trapped inside.

Chapter Text

I’ll be there someday, I can go the distance
I will find my way if I can be strong
I know every mile will be worth my while
When I go the distance, I’ll be right where I belong

The temple’s stark, dramatic collapse rattled just about all of Thebes from the ground up, sending perhaps the most violent of tremors yet rippling through the city streets. Just about everyone felt it, from the families bunkering down in their homes in the hopes that the ongoing torrent of destruction wouldn’t find them there, to the stray stragglers running from the rampaging flames to find some sort of shelter or refuge, to even Maleficent and Pete as they kept their search for the mysterious black box going.

With few bystanders around to stop them, the wicked pair had taken to tearing up one of Thebes’ usually scenic gardens, acting on Hades’ tip that the prize they were looking for might be somewhere nearby. The dark fairy stood apace from the messy hole her henchman was hastily digging, just one of several marring the garden’s once pristine stony grounds. However, this work was soon interupted by the hefty earthquake that sent the entire city shuddering, inevitably sending Pete falling flat on his face amidst the dirt he was digging up, much to his frustrated exasperation.

“Hey! What’s the big idea!?” the henchman snapped as he popped his head out of the whole angrily, shaking the dirt off his shoulders. “That there rumble had to’ve been the biggest one yet! Don’cha think we should check it out?”

“No,” Maleficent rejected bluntly, almost boredly even. “Whatever senseless rampage Hades is inflicting upon this singular world is none of our concern. What we’re after will ensure us the power to spread my domain to other worlds on a far grander scale than a mere petty coup such as his.”

“Hmph, so you keep sayin’…” Pete grumbled as he turned back to his ongoing work. “Are you sure this box with the Book of Prophecies is even for reals? I think that dingbat in black was pullin’ your leg.”

“Be quiet and dig, you imbecile,” the dark fairy scowled impatiently. “I must find that Book of Prophecies and make it my own. His was the only clue we have. We cannot afford to dismiss it without a thorough investigation.”

“I’m just sayin’,” Pete continued sullenly. “A shot in the dark ain’t gonna get us any closer to—oh!”

“What is it?” Maleficent quickly turned to her henchman at his sudden change of tune. “Have you found something? Show it to me at once, fool!”

“Yes sir-eey!” Pete exclaimed, proudly holding up a small chest with a skull acting as its lock. “This has gotta be that Pandora’s Box Hades mentioned!”

Whatever interest the dark fairy had show before immediately fell as she looked over the box her henchman was presenting her with. “Leave it,” she said staunchly, turning her nose up at the chest.

“W-what?” Pete asked, crestfallen. “After all that diggin’?”

“That is not the box which I desire,” Maleficent said coldly. “We are finished with this world. Come.”

“Aww…” the henchman sighed, disappointed as he tossed the box back into the hole where he had found it before hurrying after the dark fairy. Maleficent had all but conjured up a dark corridor so they could take their leave, yet before stepping through it, she suddenly stopped shot, much to Pete’s confusion.

“Hold a moment…” she mused, turning back around with a hint of careful scrutiny in her tone. “Do you feel that?”

“Uh… what?” Pete asked blankly. “Ya mean the wind?”

“No, you buffoon,” Maleficent scowled before stepping forward again in deep concentration. “Its darkness. Deep, pure, unconcentrated darkness…”

“What, like the sorta darkness the Heartless are made of?” Pete asked, still not following.

“No… this darkness is… different…” the dark fairy said, still clearly captivated by it. “I can sense it; its far more powerful than that of any mere Heartless. And most interesting of all… is that it seems to be radiating from a source of light, of all things…” She took pause once more, seeming to ponder over this oddity before a small, intrigued grin crossed her features. “Perhaps our time in this world is not quite finished after all…”


 

Even after the temple’s uproarious fall finally stilled, the dust and smoke stirred up by it still seemed to be everywhere. Though the musky fog concealed the devastation somewhat, it did nothing to change or undo what had been done, something that Sora, Donald, and Goofy all felt just as heavily as the newfound silence surrounding them. The trio didn’t make much of an effort to break that silence as they all sat in apt shock before the ruins of the temple, the painful realization that Hercules was pinned, or more accurately crushed beneath those very ruins hitting them all at the same exact time.

Donald and Goofy were the first to shakily rise to stand, both of them remaining cautious as they approached the fallen temple to check for any signs of the legendary hero amidst the wreckage. “Hercules!” Donald called as loudly as he could. “A-Are you ok?!”

“Hey, Herc! Can ya hear us!?” Goofy shouted, just as concerned. The pair paused for a moment, waiting and watching for any sort of shift in the rubble that would herald a response from the hero. However, as seconds began to pass into minutes without any such sign, the gravity of the situation became all too clear. “G-gwarsh, fellas…” Goofy muttered sadly, removing his hat out of respect for their supposedly fallen friend. “I don’t think he’s-”

Why?” Donald and Goofy were quick to turn around to face Sora upon hearing this, both of them taken aback by just how intense his tone was. He was still sitting on his knees, his burns still quite apparent across his arms as his hands dug into the grass below him. His expression was tight and agonized and most of all angry, focused on neither of his companions but rather at the ground in front of him as he continued just as harshly. “Why didn’t you just let me help him?!”

“…Aw, Sora…” Goofy began fretfully as both him and Donald turned back to the Keybearer with the intent of comforting him. Comfort that, as upset over the unnecessary loss of such a good friend, Sora completely refused to simply accept.

“If you guys had just let me stay and fight those Heartless, this never would have happened!” he exclaimed hotly, finally glaring up at the two. “I could have bought Herc enough time to get out!”

“And you would have been crushed instead!” Donald argued back rationally before reigning his own anger back a bit. “You were hurt; you’re still hurt! We had to get you out of there before things got any worse!”

“Well, it’s way too late for that since things just got much, much worse!” Sora snapped bitingly.

“Aw, c’mon, fellas,” Goofy attempted to interject upon seeing Donald twitch with incoming anger in response to such a fierce remark. “We shouldn’t be fightin’ at a time like thi-”

“We were just trying to save your life!” the magician cut the captain off as he addressed the Keybearer sternly. “Why do you have to have such a problem with that?!”

“Because I never asked you to!” Sora protested defiantly. “I can do things on my own! I don’t need you guys to always rush to my rescue!”

“Well sometimes you do!” Donald countered. “If you’re not gonna take care of yourself, then someone has to! We told Master Yen Sid we would keep an eye on you, and that’s exactly what we’re gonna do, whether you like it or not!”

Sora was more than prepared to keep this argument going, however, before he could get another word in edgewise out, the temple ruins finally began to rumble once more. The trio quickly turned back towards them with a shared gasp of surprise, each of them watching with wide eyes in the hopes that Hercules would somehow emerge from the rubble unscathed. However, what did end up popping out of the structure’s devastated remains was just about the exact opposite of the legendary hero, much to the trio’s immense disappointment.

In sudden, furious succession, a multitude of Heartless, the very same flaming creatures that had been in the temple at the time of its collapse, burst out of its wreckage, clearly more incensed than ever before as they landed down before the trio, ready to attack anything and everything in their path. “T-they’re back?” Goofy asked, aptly alarmed as he prepped his shield for the fight ahead.

“Of course, they’d survive!” Donald huffed, frustrated as he brandished his staff. “Sora! Go find somewhere to take cover! I’ll heal your burns when we’re done; and no arguing with us about it this time!”

Surprisingly enough, this time Sora didn’t argue, though he made no effort to move, even as his companions engaged the Heartless in combat. Instead, he simply stayed where he was, watching the starting battle and growing angrier and angrier the more he realized just how unfair every single part of it all was. It was unfair that they hadn’t had enough time to help Hercules get out of the temple alongside everyone else. It was unfair that these mindless, vicious Heartless had survived when someone as noble and brave as the legendary hero seemingly hadn’t. But what Sora quickly realized that the most unfair thing of all was that he could do about any of it. Not only was it too late to help the hero now, but even if it wasn’t, that didn’t change the fact that he was still heavily injured, still weak and worn from his loss of strength and power as a whole. And to make matters worse was the fact that Donald and Goofy, his own companions and friends, seemed to be the ones most intent on keeping him out of the fight. He understood that their protectiveness came from a place of concern, but when push came to shove in a time such as this, Sora could only find such concern frustrating, suffocating even. They were limiting him, holding him back from working towards the strength he knew he had to regain, and the more he thought about their doubts in him, in everyone’s doubts really, the more upset, the more outraged the Keybearer became.

Donald shouted out another authoritative demand for him to flee the scene of the battle, though Sora hardly heard it as lost in his own furious thoughts as he was. Though his thoughts weren’t the only thing distracting him as a sudden, sharp, bitter chill suddenly surged through his entire body, spiking at his heart in particular. The Keybearer let out a small hiss of pain through his teeth as he placed a gentle hand over his inexplicably-aching chest, only to glance down to find a sight that was much more alarming by far. His entire hand was covered in darkness, a black, inky shade of shadow that seemed to be rising up his arm at an unsettlingly steady pace. In fact, that same darkness seemed to be creeping up the rest of his body as well, painting his clothes and skin in its nightmarish pallor as it made an obvious beeline for both his mind and his heart. Sora recognized this horrific transformation well, though it was a far cry from how it usually felt, especially as his senses, his very mind altogether began to fade under such an immense pall of darkness. In fact, it acted so fast in forcing itself upon him that he had no chance to wonder how or why this was happening; instead, all he could do was panic. “D-Donald! Goofy!” he choked, reaching out a shaking, shadowy hand to the duo still battling the Heartless. “I-I… s-something’s wrong! I’m… I-I can’t-”

The Keybearer cut himself off with a sharp, anguished cry as the darkness tightened its reigns around his heart. Donald and Goofy only barely managed to turn back around to face Sora just in time to watch the shadows fully overtake him. The rampaging Heartless were all but forgotten as the pair rushed forward to their transforming companion, fearful as they ever were whenever this sort of dangerous shift took place, however, as soon as it was complete, they were quick to realize that this new form he had taken on was quite unlike anything they had witnessed before.

Indeed, it was still somewhat familiar: he was still drenched in absolute darkness from head to toe, not a speck of light to be found anywhere save for his eyes. They were like bright, piercing full moons, wide and large as they seemed to stare at nothing and everything all at once. His fingertips had turned into long, spindly, pointed claws and though his mouth seemed to have disappeared entirely, he still let out a series of low, rumbling, rather feral growls as he clamored upright into a hunched, almost animalistic stance. However, what this form apart from the past was the Keyblade that materialized within his clawed grasp, a weapon he had never been able to utilize like this before; there was no doubt it was still the Kingdom Key, though much like Sora himself, it was enshrouded with shadow to the point that only its silhouette was recognizable. Donald and Goofy practically froze up in fear as their darkened young companion looked between the two of them with his glowing, emotionless eyes, seemingly recognizing neither of them, even as they made a shaky attempt at communicating with him.

“S-Sora?” Goofy ventured first, albeit quite apprehensively as both of them kept a safe distance from the Keybearer, knowing just how dangerous and unpredictable he could be like this. “A-are ya still-”

The captain was succinctly cut off as Sora suddenly snapped his glance away from the pair and towards the crowd of Heartless still bouncing around behind them. With fast, erratic movements, he suddenly lunged forward, nearly knocking his companions over in the process as he ran towards the creatures almost on all fours, Keyblade still in hand all the while. And then, with a ferocity that outright terrified both Donald and Goofy as they stood on the sidelines watching, Sora tore into the Heartless without any sort of mercy whatsoever, clawing and keying at them with vicious, deadly attacks. His monstrous growls and hisses were just as apparent as the tendrils of darkness leaking off of him as he cut through the once menacing group of creatures, ignoring their flames in favor of extinguishing their existences altogether. In a way, it certainly did seem that, in however mindless this furious rampage might have been, Sora was enacting some sort of retaliation against these Heartless, both for injuring him before and for surviving the temple’s collapse while Hercules hadn’t. Which was why, with the superior strength the darkness allotted him, it only took him a mere matter of minutes to clear the creatures out, leaving not so much as a single one of them alive in the wake of such a violent outburst.

With the last of the Heartless finally gone, Donald and Goofy were more than prepared to let out a shared sigh of relief, though that sigh was something they held off on the moment they noticed something was extremely off. Namely, the fact that Sora hadn’t returned to normal yet, even though the battle was over. Instead, he remained entrenched in darkness, his former aggression replaced with an apparent sense of aimlessness as he stood hunched over, glancing around idly for something to attack. The duo exchanged a nervous glance as they hesitantly decided to approach him, hoping that they’d be able to bring their young companion back to his right mind, even if they had no idea how.

“S-Sora?” Donald began first, garnishing the wayward Keybearer’s attention. He looked towards his companions with wide curious eyes, thankfully showing no violent intent as he simply stared at them blankly. “C-can… can you hear us?”

Sora simply tilted his head at this as if he was confused, much to the pair’s growing concern. “Uh… maybe he’s just havin’ a hard time understandin’ us?” Goofy guessed with a frown. “Hey, Sora, can ya try giving us a nod if you understand what we’re sayin’ to ya?”

The Keybearer did no such thing as he instead remained stationary, leaning forward slightly though still not making any sort of effort to communicate with his worried companions, not that he very well could even if he wanted to in this form to begin with. “W-what are we gonna do?!” Donald exclaimed, aptly fretful. “He’s never been… l-like this for so long before! What if he stays stuck that? What are we supposed to do then?!”

“Aw, don’t worry, Donald,” Goofy reassured as encouragingly as he could, though upon sparing a brief glance over at Sora again, he couldn’t deny that the very same prospect brought him just as much dread. “This is Sora we’re talkin’ about here! He’s not gonna let a little darkness take over his heart for too long!”

“Y-yeah!” the magician perked up as he forced himself to believe that. After all, the alternative was much too grim to even think about. “C’mon, Sora! You gotta snap out of it!”

“That’s right!” Goofy added just as firmly. The pair worked past their nerves so they could each place a hand on their young companion’s shadow-streaked shoulders. The sudden touch was enough to elicit a distrustful glare, accompanied by a small warning growl out of Sora, but surprisingly, he made no move to attack as he watched the pair carefully as they continued their appeal. “Ya need to come back to us!” the captain said with a bright smile. “We’re a team after all, aren’t we?”

“And you’re the one who keeps this team together!” Donald chimed in confidently, noticing as the dark aura radiating off of the Keybearer was finally starting to diminish somewhat. “We’re sorry about what happened before, but we just don’t wanna lose you! To something like… this, or to anything else!”

“But we’re not worried anymore,” Goofy assured, tightening his grip on the Keybearer’s shoulder supportively. “‘Cause we know just how strong your heart is, Sora! Heck, is somethin’ we’ve known all along, and so have you!”

“Which is why you’re not going to just let the darkness have it!” Donald proclaimed, almost overwhelmed with relief when Sora finally closed his otherwise unblinking yellow eyes. “Right?”

The pair finally paused, waiting to see if their uplifting rhetoric worked. And sure enough, it did as the shadows settled on Sora finally began to lift, as if he had stepped out of the darkness of night and back into the midday sun as his usual colors and vibrancy returned. And with it, came the return of his own consciousness, though it was somewhat slow to return as he let out a small, tired groan as his eyes—thankfully back to their usual deep blue—fluttered open just as he collapsed to his knees before the pair. Donald and Goofy still didn’t remove their hands from his shoulders, even as he looked up at the two of them, his expression weary and disoriented as he tried to catch his lost breath. “D-Donald? Goofy?” he asked, his voice soft and sedated and filled with confusion. “W-wha-”

“Sora!” the duo cheered joyfully, not hesitating to engulf the unprepared Keybearer in an unexpected hug. As a result, the entire trio toppled over into the grass, Donald and Goofy laughing brightly all the while, and though it took a moment, Sora slowly joined in their levity, even if he largely had no idea where it was coming from.

However, unbeknownst to the group amidst their bout of allayed celebration, was the pair of figures standing on one of Thebes’ higher structures above them, a pair that had just observed everything that had happened firsthand. “Well then…” Maleficent smirked, clutching her staff as she kept her gaze focused on the trio below. “It seems as though I truly have underestimated that boy in the past…”

“Boy, I’ll say!” Pete chimed in, absolutely baffled. “What was up with all that darkness coverin’ him anyway? I thought he was supposed’ta be one of them goodie-goods, all full o’ light and whatnot.”

“It would appear that his heart is not as ‘full of light’ as we had previously been led to believe…How… fascinating…” the dark fairy mused, her grin widening as a malevolent new idea came to her. “Perhaps what we’re truely searching for isn’t that far out of our reach after all…”

“Huh?” Pete glanced around in confusion. “But I don’t see any black boxes ‘round here…”

“Forget about the black box for now,” Maleficent said simply.

“Wha-?!” the henchman exclaimed, flabbergasted. “B-but we just spent the past several days lookin’ all over for it! How are we just supposed’ta forget about it like it ain’t nothing’!?”

“Because, you oaf,” the dark fairy said sharply as she summoned a dark corridor for them to take their leave. “If all goes according to plan, then not only will the box fall into our hands, but so too will each and every world in our path.”

“Oh yeah?” Pete inquired, curious. “And how do ya see that?”

Maleficent took pause before entering her dark corridor to take her leave, casting another brief, intentfully glance down at the trio on the ground, or more specifically, the Keybearer among them. “By plunging a noble heart into the depths of darkness and despair…”

And just like that, the duo left, still completely unnoticed by the trio below as they made progress in recuperating from their most recent harrowing experience. Now that they actually had some time to spare, Donald made sure to finally heal Sora’s still persistent burns while both him and Goofy fretted over their young companion, even despite the fact that the Keybearer himself was still somewhat out of it.

“What happened to you?!” Donald fussed, though concern clearly filled his tone as he finished casting cure. “Why didn’t you go back to normal after the Heartless were gone like you usually do when you get like that?!”

“Why didn’t I… what?” Sora asked with a frown as he placed a hand against his somewhat aching head. “What are you talking about? When I get like what?”

Donald and Goofy exchanged a worried glance at this, both of them taking on the same sort of confusion their young companion was showing. “Uh… don’tcha remember any of what just happened, Sora?” the captain asked patiently.

Sora paused, his brow furrowing in deep thought for a moment before he ultimately shook his head. “No, the last thing I can remember is…” he hesitated, partially out of not wanting to admit the truth, though for the sake of figuring out what was going on, he begrudgingly did anyway. “I-is feeling angry and… and hurt. And then, w-when I looked down at my hand it was just covered in-” He cut himself off with a gasp, his eyes widening with the almost sickening realization of what had happened. “D-darkness… Oh no… No, no, no, no, no, please tell me I didn’t-”

“Y-you did…” Donald and Goofy confirmed in grave unison, both of them averting the poignant fear starting to well up in Sora’s eyes as he looked between the two of them desperately.

“B-but on the bright side, ya did get rid of all the Heartless!” Goofy tried to reassure their young companion, especially as he let out a loud groan and buried his face into his hands out of shame.

“But on the bad side, we almost weren’t able to get you to snap out of it…” Donald muttered apprehensively.

“I can’t believe this…” Sora huffed as he rose to stand and pace out of frustration, largely with himself this time more than anyone else. “How do I just not remember any of this!? Usually when this happens, I’m able to at least feel some of what happens, but this time it was like I totally blanked out! What’s going on with me lately?!”

“M-maybe it has somethin’ to do with you losin’ your strength?” Goofy ventured a guess, though it was a rather arbitrary one at best.

“Ugh, why wouldn’t that surprise me?” Sora asked with an annoyed scowl as he crossed his arms. “And so much for trying to regain that strength; how am I supposed to do that if I can’t even control something like this?”

“Aw, c’mon, Sora, you can’t just give up now cause of one tiny thing like this,” the captain encouraged with a small smile.

“That’s right!” Donald readily agreed. “If one thing’s for certain, its that whatever’s going on, we’ll figure it out, together!” To emphasize his point, the magician put his hand out, and Goofy readily placed his own on top of it. The pair kept up their reassuring grins as they looked to their upset young companion, who couldn’t really stay that way for long as he finally decided to accept the support they were offering him this time.

“Right,” Sora nodded with a smile of his own as his hand landed down on top of his companions’. “Together.”

However, the trio barely had time to revel in their newfound solidarity before the ruins of the temple began to shift behind them yet again. In light of recent events, all three of them were on high alert as they turned beck to the fallen structure, their weapons in hand to take on whatever might emerge from it.

“What now?” Sora asked, slightly aggravated as he tightened his grip on his Keyblade. “More Heartless?”

“Wait a second…” Goofy said, squinting to see through the last of the settling dust to find a familiar silhouette walking out of it towards them. “That ain’t no Heartless… T-that’s-”

“Hercules!” the trio exclaimed in stunned, yet delighted unison as the legendary hero finally emerged from the wreckage. He looked no worse for wear, a little dirty from the rubble, with a few scars and scratches here and there, but for the most part he was still as strong and sturdy as ever as he came out to meet the excited group with a broad, confident grin.

“Well, getting out of there took a little longer than I thought it would…” Hercules noted with a small chuckle.

“You’re telling us!” Sora exclaimed with a small, incredulous laugh. “You scared us!”

“Eh, it was nothing,” the hero shrugged before pulling off an impressive flex. “That’s what these are for.”

Despite the circumstances, this bout of good humor, coupled with the immense relief they shared at simply seeing Hercules alive and well again was enough to elicit a full, hearty bout of laughter from the trio. However, this bout of levity unsurprisingly didn’t last long as the group’s attention was soon diverted by a dark corridor opening up only just a few feet away.

“Oh, wow! Very nice, full marks,” the familiar freeshooter applauded sardonically as he stepped out of the dark portal. “And I’m not just talking about that smooth escape either.”

No one paid much mind to what the Organization member might have meant by this remark as Sora, Donald, and Goofy all took up offensive stances against him. “Go away!” the magician shouted fiercely, in no mood to deal with any further foes after everything that they’d been through.

“No Organization!” Goofy added just as adamantly, ready to take up his shield at a moment’s notice.

“You’re Xigbar!” Sora exclaimed, far from pleased to see any member of the Organization after his last harrowing encounter with them, much less this particular one.

“And you’ve got a knack for pointing out the obvious, kid,” Xigbar remarked, still smirking coyly as he approached the group. “All this altruism is giving me the warm and fuzzies. So then, does having a heart of light come with an extremely good insurance policy?”

“Ugh, just say what you mean for a change!” the Keybearer scowled, annoyed by how just about every member of the Organization always seemed to speak in riddles or circles.

“Oh, but I did though,” the freeshooter shrugged. “No good will ever come from putting other people first. Anyone who does that usually ends up coming in dead last. It just makes sense when you really think about it.”

“I don’t think it does,” Hercules spoke up, shaking his head in disagreement with such a cynical viewpoint. “I was able to save Meg’s life because I was ready to risk my own. And because of that, we both made it out alive and together in the end.”

“Because you have friends in high places, you mean,” Xigbar countered dismissively. “Tricks like that don’t fly for your average joe.”

“And what do you know anyway?” Sora argued defiantly. “You weren’t even there! If you were, you’d admire Herc’s courage!”

“I don’t admire one guy leaping into danger if it means someone else might have to jump in to save him,” Xigbar rolled his visible eye. “You’re all just lining up to lose out, dooming others to take the fall with ya. Oh, and you can spare me the usual party line. Yeah, hearts are powerful when they’re connected. But if you put too much of that power in one place, some of those hearts might just end up breaking. Unless…” the freeshooter glanced back over his shoulder at the group, or more specifically, at Sora. “You were to somehow find a heart strong enough to hold it all in… But who am I kidding? A heart that strong doesn’t exist…or does it?”

“Who cares?” Sora interjected, thoroughly irritated by this point. “Can’t you just get to the point and get out of here already? It’d save us all a lot of time.”

“Yeesh, so eager to see me go, aren’t you?” Xigbar asked, raising a knowing eyebrow. “I expected at least a little better reception than this. Especially since I came all this way to offer you some pretty sound advice.”

“Like we’d listen to any advice from you!” Donald huffed, aptly incensed.  

“Yeah, knowing you, its probably just another trap or something,” Sora agreed, sending the Organization member a suspicious glare.

“Look, I’m just trying to warn you that the game we’re all playing here is about to change, big time,” the freeshooter informed, still grinning all the while. “Still, Sora, that doesn’t mean you should change. Accept the power you’re given. Find the hearts joined to yours.”

“Can’t you take a hint?” Sora asked impatiently, all but ready to finally summon his Keyblade in the hopes that it’d get Xigbar to finally leave. “We already told you; we don’t want or need your advice!”

“Ha! As if!” Xigbar scoffed, turning his back on the group as he began to walk away. “You don’t have any choice but to follow this sweet little trail of bread crumbs. And at the end, you’ll finally realize just what destiny has in store for you. In fact… your reward might be right around the corner. You’re so close!”

And with that, before the Keybearer or any of his companions could so much as ask what the freeshooter meant by such vague remarks, Xigbar walked into the distant fog where he ended up disappearing into a dark corridor just like the one he had arrived in. A bout of confused silence rose up among the group as they silently pondered the freeshooter’s cryptic “advice” to themselves. That is, until Sora voiced his undeniable confusion over what he’d just heard. “Hearts breaking?” he asked, more to himself than any of the others as he frowned almost fretfully. “Whose hearts?”

“Sora, don’t let someone like him bother you,” Hercules reassured steadily. “He’s just trying to get under your skin ‘cause he thinks he can. But we’ll prove him wrong. We’ll show him that our sacrifices haven’t been for nothing.”

Despite Hercules’ encouragement, Sora couldn’t help but still be somewhat concerned by Xigbar’s rather ominous statements. Though he was quick to put that concern aside, replacing it with a confident smile as he nodded in agreement with the hero’s resolve. “You’re right,” he said, deciding to fully believe that fact himself rather than listen to what any member of the Organization had to say.

“Mm hm!” Goofy added enthusiastically. “Besides, we’re already proof enough of that!”

“It’s like we said before,” Donald grinned just as boldly. “We’re a team! When we’re together, we can do anything!”

“Yeah!” Sora exclaimed, sharing their zeal. However, as the others all began to move on ahead with the intent of finishing their search of the city, he still stopped short to ponder over their brief, rather bizarre confrontation with the Organization member. Very few parts of what Xigbar had said seemed to make any actual sense, which wasn’t that surprising given how cryptic and ominous those with the Organization tended to be with their monologues and speeches. Yet there was still one part of it all that left the Keybearer wondering whether this particular speech was just more empty, supposedly intimidating rhetoric or not. “And at the end,” the freeshooter had said with a smile that easily conveyed that he knew something the rest of them didn’t, though exactly what that something was, Sora hadn’t the faintest clue. “You’ll finally realize just what destiny has in store for you. In fact, your reward might be right around the corner. You’re so close!”

“What reward…?” the Keybearer muttered to himself, trying to fathom what implications such a confusing statement was even supposed to carry. If it was any sort of reward the Organization intended on trying to offer to him, then of course, Sora knew he wanted absolutely no parts of it whatsoever. But if it happened to be something else altogether…?

Sora was quick to shake his head clear of such pointless thoughts. It didn’t matter what “reward” Xigbar had spoke of was, especially when that reward, good or bad, might very well not even exist in the first place. As it was, it was probably just another trick, another lie and deception among countless others meant simply to lead him astray off his intended path. Which was why the Keybearer boldly decided to just ignore it all for the time being to rigidly stay on that path, hoping to seek his own kind of reward at the end of it all. Namely his lost strength to be regained, and the hearts of those so unfairly lost, all of which were waiting, no, depending on him.

And despite any mocking villain, soothsaying Organization member, or even the unseen darkness or hidden rage pressing against the doors of his own heart, Sora was determined to not let any of those wandering, waiting hearts down.


 

The rest of their sweep through Thebes was surprisingly smooth and speedy. Most of the townsfolk in peril had already been escorted out of the diminishing flames to safety, and the group wasted little time in rounding up the rest of the stragglers. Heartless still popped up in their path from time to time, but even their numbers were lower than before, their aggression lessened somewhat. In a way, it almost seemed as though Hades seemed to be shifting his focus away from the city entirely, something that didn’t really surprise any of them. After all, the lord of the dead had sent the message of his immense power quite well in this attack on the town, but it was obvious that wasn’t his end goal like apparent control of the entire cosmos seemed to be. However, the group didn’t get a complete confirmation on this theory until they ended up circling back around to Thebes’ central square, only to be met with a familiar flying steed and its pair of riders almost as soon as they arrived.

Pegasus touched down firmly right before Hercules and the trio, both Meg and Phil sharing allayed grins as they relayed the good news they had to share from their scouting from above. “Nice job, Wonderboy,” Meg congratulated the hero warmly. “We checked the whole town. Looks like everyone’s finally safe.”

“That’s great,” Hercules said, letting out a sigh of relief that Sora, Donald, and Goofy all easily shared in on. “We did what we could to help.”

“I’ll say,” Meg smirked, glancing up to address the entire group playfully. “Looks like you heroes have been busy little bees.”

Sora, Donald, and Goofy all perked up at this, taking the praise proudly, even if Phil was quick to interject to detract it. “Eh, from while we were flyin’ overhead, you three were passable, at best,” the satyr remarked flippantly, though he did break out into a wry grin upon noticing the offended glances the trio sent his way. “Hey, I’m kiddin’! Ya did good. At least none of ya died, so that’s definitely a plus in just about every book there is.”

This quip was more than enough to get a laugh out of the entire group, though it was ultimately a short lived one as Pegasus let out a small, yet serious whicker, diverting everyone’s attention towards Mount Olympus afar in the distance. “Oh, look…” Meg sighed wearily, noticing the fearful sight first. “More trouble…”

Trouble indeed summed the situation up well as everyone looked to the mountain towering high over the city. Usually, Mount Olympus’s impeccably tall peak was awash in soft, fluffy clouds, clouds that obscured the glorious realm of the gods away from mortal eyes. However, now the clouds that swirled around that realm were black and stormy, marred by the occasional bolt of dark thunder to top off the sinister aura filling the very air itself.

“It’s Hades…” Hercules scowled, not even having to think twice about where such darkness was coming from. “No wonder things have been quieter around here lately. He’s going after the home of the gods.”

Upon hearing this, the trio needed only to exchange a brief, determined glance, all three of them knowing that they hadn’t backed down against Hades before and they certainly had no intentions of backing down against him this time. “Then let’s go stop him!” Sora proclaimed, ready to do just that, even despite the apparent danger.

“Right,” Hercules grinned, just as eager to put an end to the lord of the dead’s twisted ambitions once and for all.

Knowing that the group had an important task ahead of them, Meg and Phil were quick to send them their best wishes and brief farewells before Pegasus whisked them off once more. And with that, they set off, hurrying onward towards the outskirts of town towards the path that would lead them back up the towering mountain ahead. They spared no time for breaks or distractions, knowing that time was of the essence in halting Hades’ schemes as they began steadily making their way towards the summit. The Heartless started popping up more frequently with each cliff they scaled, but with heightened vigor and a renewed sense of purpose, the group took them on with stalwart gusto. After all, they were no longer on the defensive, simply trying to keep people safe from the rampaging creatures; now they were on the attack, hurrying to hit Hades where it hurt and nip his plans in the bud before they even had a chance to be fully realized whatsoever. It was reinvigorating for all of them, to say the least, especially considering just how perilous and nearly deadly their time in the Thebes had been. But as they scaled Mount Olympus, they felt more eager, more united, perhaps even a bit stronger; ready to pit their noble team against whatever tricks and traps Hades might try to throw their way.

Of course, what he did actually intend on throwing their way was something much more immense than any of them could have expected.

The group had only made it about halfway up the mountain when the ground began to rumble once more, hardly an unusual phenomenon for any of them by now considering everything that had happened in Thebes. “This sure does feel familiar…” Goofy noted over the distant, unintelligible roars coming from the mountain’s distant peak.

“Yeah, just like before,” Sora agreed. “The only thing missing is Hades showing up to blow us off the mountain.”

“This is getting worse by the minute…” Hercules mused, his manner quite serious as he kept his focus on the mountain’s storm-obscured summit. “I hope I’m wrong, but my family may need me.” Without wasting another second, the hero turned his sights to the sky and let out a loud, calling whistle. Pegasus soared in to respond to it, having already deposited Meg and Phil somewhere safe so he could race to his master’s side if need be. “Sora, I’m gonna go fly ahead,” Hercules said to the Keybearer as his winged steed touched down before him. “You’ve been a big help, but… leave the rest to me. Like I said, my family’s counting on me; I shouldn’t keep them waiting.”

“Family?” Sora inquired curiously, having never heard the hero mention any sort of family members before.

“Yeah,” Hercules grinned as he mounted Pegasus. “Dad’s king of the gods.” And with that and a simple wave of farewell, the hero took off, not realizing just how baffled his simple statement had left the trio in his wake.

“Whaaaat?!” Donald and Goofy exclaimed in unison as they exchanged an awed glance.

“H-his father is a god?” Sora asked just as incredulously. “But… wouldn’t that mean Herc is a god too?!”

“I think it does…” the captain mused thoughtfully. “Ya know, it feels like this is something we should’ve found out a long time ago…”

“No wonder he’s so strong!” the magician exclaimed. “That means he’ll be ok on his own for sure. Won’t he?”

“No,” Sora shook his head. “Organization XIII’s here. God or no god, he’ll need our help dealing with them. And Hades too, for that matter.”

“Good point,” Goofy nodded firmly. “We gotta go!”

“Cause heroes never quit!” Donald emphasized as they all turned to face the peak before them once more.

Though Sora certainly agreed with his companions’ noble sentiments, he didn’t voice that agreement right away as he instead briefly thought back to the indirect advice that Hercules himself had offered him. Advice that the Keybearer was only really starting to understand the further along their journey progressed: “Hm, that’s tough… All I know is… that she was in trouble. Suddenly, I wanted to save her with all my heart…”

“We fight with all our hearts…” Sora echoed the sentiment to himself softly, deciding to fully embrace that thought for himself. While thus far he’d had relatively little success in finding any viable, expedited way of regaining his lost strength, maybe that strength wasn’t something he have expected to come back to him in one fell swoop. Perhaps it was something that needed to be earned, regained over time through hard work and solid determination, both attributes the Keybearer had taken up in order to build up that strength in the first place. Perhaps the way to bring it all back was exactly how the hero had said: by working, fighting with every ounce of resolve and courage his heart had to give. “C’mon!” Sora exclaimed to his companions, letting his newfound verve shine through has he began leading the way up the rest of the mountain. “Let’s go show Hades what happens when he messes with the wrong heroes!”


 

Not wanting to leave Hercules without any backup for too long, the trio quickened the pace of their upward voyage to the peak. Whatever crowds of Heartless they encountered were either quickly dealt with or ignored altogether as they rushed past them, scaling the perilous mountain pass in the hopes of reaching the realm of the gods sooner rather than later. They could tell they were getting ever closer to their destination as the skies soon turned from bright blue to dark and stormy, rumbling with thunder as a torrential downpour began to spout from the dour clouds above. The rain was easy enough to ignore, however, the other elements brought about from Hades’ Titans were a bit more of a challenge. The primary danger the trio faced the closer they got to the summit were rocks, heavy, crushing boulders tumbling down the cliffsides seemingly without end. It took some careful footwork and precise timing, but sure enough they managed to avert the rock Titan’s projectiles and slip into the momentary safety of the enclosed mountain pass. The pass that led directly to the epicenter of the Titans’ violent attack: the realm of the gods, Olympus itself.

Despite the storm raging on around it, Olympus was, to put it simply, absolutely immaculate. Its large golden gates led the trio to a radiant realm of sacred light, quite unlike any they had ever seen before. In absolute awe, Sora, Donald, and Goofy stepped foot into the divine domain, one that seemed to be entirely composed of sculpted clouds and grandiose golden structures as far as the eye could see. Needless to say it was a far cry from the damaged stony streets of Thebes or even the lush greenery of the mountain it capped of, something the trio unanimously noted as they tried to take it all in.

“Is this… Olympus?” Sora asked, still quite stunned by the drastic change of scenery.

“Gawrsh, it’s amazing…” Goofy said rather quietly to maintain an air of reverence in such a hallowed place. However, if there was any group that cared about no such thing, it was the Heartless that showed up only seconds later. An entire army of shadowy, soldier-like figures materialized just a few feet away from the trio, fully armored and ready for battle. Fortunately, the trio was more than ready to take them on as they summoned their respective weapons, charging headfirst into the fray, this time, without any signs of hesitation. The scuffle was arduous to be sure, as the trio was certainly outnumbered by the horde of bulky Heartless surrounding them. However, the key difference between this skirmish and their initial fights in Thebes was clear: instead of working against each other, this time, the trio worked perfectly in sync, finally falling back into their old rapport they usually carried in battles of the past. And that rapport only continued as they cleared out the first wave of Heartless, though no rest awaited them as several more hordes seemed to be invading Olympus as a whole, diminishing the sanctity and security the realm of the gods should have known. Even so, Sora, Donald, and Goofy were more than equipped to deal with them as they tore their way through the weaker shadows, steadily cutting their way through towards the heart of Olympus in the hopes of meeting up with Hercules again there. And sure enough, that’s exactly what they did.

The trio had just about reached the apex of the divine domain when they spotted their first glimpse of the hero. He was still peached on Pegasus as the duo swept through the air, slicing through any aerial Heartless he came across as he made a beeline for the central citadel, where Hades and his Titans no doubt awaited. Hercules happened to spot the trio himself as he flew high above them, and he offered them a small, confident nod of greeting, having already expected them to follow after him, even despite his advising against it. Still, if there was anyone who could help him take on the threat Hades and his sinister monsters posed, Hercules knew it’d be those three, no doubt.

It seemed as though they were all going to arrive not a moment to soon, either, as Hades himself stood smugly within the sacred rotunda, watching with a triumphant smirk as his Titans conquered the so-called “mighty” gods of the glorious Olympus. The lesser deities had all been restrained by the lord of the dead’s darkened chains, left to watch as even the all-powerful Zeus himself was overpowered by the Titans’ immense elemental powers.

“I swear to you, Hades!” the king of the gods shouted angrily down to his brother from his ever-expanding prison of solid fire and ice. “When I get out of this, I’ll-” Zeus never got a chance to finish his threat as the freezing molten rocks finally covered him completely, effectively sealing him and all his sacred power away.

“Yeah, nah,” Hades’ grin deepened as he conjured up a dark throne, finalizing his newfound domain over the realm of the gods. “I’ll be the one giving orders around here from now on, bolt boy.”

“Don’t get too comfortable, Hades!”

The lord of the dead shot upright in his seat upon hearing such a brazen proclamation, his baffled shock growing tenfold as he spun around to find a familiar hero flying in. Hercules sent Hades a challenging grin as he soared in upon Pegasus swiftly, his radiant sword poised to put an end to the lord of the dead’s dark regime. But as startled and outraged by the hero’s appearance alone, Hades was even more incensed to find that he wasn’t alone.

“Yeah, ‘cause we’re here to stop you!”

All the lord of the dead could do was gape, absolutely appalled as he turned back towards the citadel’s gates only to find Sora, Donald, and Goofy standing before them, their weapons in hand. Things only seemed to go from bad to worse for Hades as Hercules sped in, cutting through the chains binding the other gods with a single swing of his steady sword. The lord of the dead all but ignored the deities’ united cheers of celebrate over their release as his blue flames quickly spiked deadly red as a sign of his fury, fury that he had no qualms about showing as he fiercely demanded his Titans to cut these brazen interlopers down before they ruined his careful plans altogether.

“Get them!” he shouted to his quartet of mythical monsters. And sure enough, the Titans didn’t hesitate to act on this intense command, storming forward with thunderous steps and leaving behind deadly trails of fire, ice, wind, and stone in their wakes. They towered tall over the trio in particular, and though the thought occurred to each of them that they were in over their heads in dealing with such massive monsters, it was quick to be pushed away as soon as the hero leapt off his winged steed to join them.

“You guys ready for this?” Hercules asked as he landed, not hesitating to take up a fighting stance against the rampaging Titans.

“We’re always ready,” Sora assured confidently, brandish his Keyblade for the no doubt daunting battle ahead.

And daunting it was. The Titans didn’t bother holding back their initial blasts, going in for elemental attacks first, as would be expected. The immense gales caused by the wind Titan alone made things difficult for the group, but when coupled with the non-stop icy spikes, fiery blasts, and hurling rocks, they found that even getting anywhere close to the monsters to land so much as a single blow on any of them all but impossible.

“How are we supposed to fight them like this?” Donald huffed in annoyance as he launched another ultimately blocked flame spell over at the ice Titan. “They just keep knocking us back!”

“If only we could just fight each of ‘em one-by-one,” Goofy said, using his shield to deflect a hard-thrown stone. “That’d sure make things a lot easier!”

“Wait a second…” Sora mused with dawning realization as sudden, somewhat risky plan came to mind. “That’s it! Herc, you think you can cause a distraction for us?”

“You can count on me,” the hero grinned, not even having to ask what the Keybearer’s possible plans were. Instead, Hercules boldly ran forward while the trio skirted off out of the Titans’ notice. The hero made good on his word to provide a timely distraction as he vaulted up onto the rock Titan first, moving far faster than the sluggish, bulky creature could before finally taking up a perch upon one of its two flat stone heads.

“Hey, lava-breath!” he taunted to the fire Titan in particular. “Bet ya can’t knock me off!”

As expected, the Titan took the bait as it sent its massive flaming arm swinging directly at the hero. And while Hercules was able to easily avoid it with a simple deft leap off the monster’s head, the rock Titan was not as its fiery counterpart struck it hard. The momentous blow was more than enough to send the rock Titan flying, even despite its impressive weight and sturdy build, not just across the rotunda, but clear off the edge of the citadel altogether. And, with the other monsters distracted as they were with watching their fellow Titan plummet through the clouds, they failed to notice the trio rounding off behind the icy behemoth in particular, ready to carry out their decisive surprise attack.

“Ok, on three,” Sora said discreetly to Donald and Goofy as they positioned themselves behind one of the ice Titan’s rather spindly legs. “One, two-”

“H-hey! Hey! Hey!” Hades shouted from his spot on the sidelines upon noticing the trio setting up to take out another one of his Titans. Or ideally, even more than that. “What do you three numbskulls think you’re doing!?”

“Three!” Sora shouted hastily, and not a moment too soon either. For just as Hades lobbed a series of smaller fireballs over at the trio in a haphazard attempt at stopping them, they leapt out of the attack’s path entirely, instead enacting one all their own. Their weapons each struck the ice Titan’s inner knee at the exact same moment, the sheer impact of their combined blow proving to be more than enough to shatter it entirely. The chilled creature let out a hiss of surprise, unable to catch itself as it began to topple over onto, fortunately enough onto none other than the fire Titan right next to it. The conflicting elementals instantly began acting against each other the moment they slammed into each other, resulting in both of them tumbling over on top of each other, effectively stunned.

“Nice one, you guys,” Hercules congratulated the trio as they regrouped. “Looks like you just killed two birds with one stone. Or I guess I should say two Titans with one stone.”

“Aw, shucks, they’re not so tough by themselves!” Goofy assured brazenly.

“And with three down, that means there’s only one left to go—whoa!” Sora was interupted as the final Titan standing roared into vengeful action, launching all four of them upward with its violent gales. The breezy creature expanded the range of its twirling tornado, casting the group flying in just about every direction possible without any signs of letting any of them land safely. Getting in any attacks against the wind Titan also seemed to be out of the question as the monster kept itself firmly at the eye of its storm as it easily blew off any sort of spell or swing sent its way. And, after it seemed to get tired with toying with its struggling victims, the Titan finally turned them loose, its winds tossing them high before letting gravity take care of the rest. Fortunately, however, their shared freefall didn’t end in disaster as Pegasus soared in just in the nick of time to come to their rescue. The winged steed retrieved Hercules out of the air first, and then deftly flew back in so he could catch Sora, Donald, and Goofy in turn before landing back at the edge of the citadel, a bit shaken up, but still no worse for wear.

Unfortunately, however, it seemed as though the group would receive no reprieve in this battle whatsoever. For just as they began picking themselves up to continue the fight, the three fallen Titans seemed to do the same. The monsters of fire and ice had finally broken away from each other and recovered, lumbering back up to their full, towering heights as they joined the wind Titan once more. And, to make matters worse, even the rock Titan somehow rose up through the clouds again to regroup with its companions as all four monsters came to surround the group, much to Hades’ sadistic amusement as he continued observing the fight from afar.

“Yeah, that’s right,” the lord of the dead challenged with a vindictive grin. “Just keep linin’ em’ up to knock ‘em down. They’ll just keep getting back up. Let’s see if you plucky yutzes can do the same…”

“Gawrsh, I sure hope we can…” Goofy said, more to the others than to Hades. “Especially since we gotta fight all four of ‘em at once again.”

“We’re right back to square one!” Donald added just as fretfully.

“So what?” Sora asked defiantly, refusing to let that worrisome fact phase him. “There’s four of us too!”

“Actually,” Hercules interjected, grinning as he looked up to the solid molten tower before them. “I think I can make it five.” Without even giving any of the Titans a chance to attack, the hero leapt into action, hurrying up the hardened icy mound and breaking into its seemingly impenetrable surface with his bare hands alone. Light instantly poured out of the darkened rocks, signifying the revival of the king of the gods mere seconds before Zeus burst fourth from his prison, his divine might restored once more.

“Aha!” Zeus laughed triumphantly, his usual gusto showing as he turned to his son with a proud grin. “Thank you, my boy. Now… time to watch your old man get to work!”

The trio on the ground watched in apt excited amazement as the king of the gods conjured up two handfuls of his bright, iconic lightning bolts. Alternatively, Hades gasped in shocked dismay as his meticulous plans all began to fall apart in one fell swoop as Zeus chucked his thunderous projectiles at each of the Titans in fast, blinding succession. The monsters, well familiar with Zeus’ incredible power and how outmatched even they were against it, reeled in pain from the brutal strikes and instantly fell back before the king of the gods could obliterate them altogether. Yet despite their frightened attempt at fleeing, Hercules wasn’t about to let them get away so easily; the hero managed to grab ahold of the wind Titan’s tail end as it whirled past him, grasping the very gusts themselves tightly as he swung its massive, tornado-like form around freely. Its suctioning winds were more than enough to pull the other three Titans into the cyclone, trapping each of them and their elemental might within its thrall. And, with a single hefty toss, Hercules sent the wind Titan, as well as the other three mythical monsters contained within it, flying as high as the outer reaches of the cosmos themselves, finally freeing Olympus from their legendary terror once and for all.

With the Titans taken care of, a round of celebratory cheers rose up from the trio, Hercules, Zeus, and the countless other gods who had been forced to watch the intensive brawl from afar, unable to offer their aid to the cause as a result of Hades’ power. As for the lord of the dead himself, to say that he was outraged by such a crushing defeat was an understatement as his flames sparked red the moment he turned towards the noble group who had bested his intricate, practically perfect schemes.

“I can’t believe it!” he shouted sharply. “I put eighteen years into that plan, and you’ve blippin’ ruined it, just like that! I really don’t like any of you… And believe me, that’s me being nice. But I’m more than ready to get not so nice to take care of you CHUMPS!”

“Oh, just give it a rest already,” Sora remarked, completely unintimidated by such hallow threats. “You’ll never beat Herc, no matter how many times you times you try!”

“Yeah, go back to the Underworld where ya belong!” Goofy added vigorously.

“Go have the time of your afterlife!” Donald quipped with a wry smirk.

“Enough already!” Hades snapped fiercely. “I did NOT come this far to be ridiculed by Zeusy high and mighty, his little sunspot, and a trio of clowns! You know what? I’ll just go ahead and destroy you myself!”

Despite the lord of the dead’s literally fiery rage, the trio was more than prepared to brazenly square off against him. Fortunately though, it seemed as though they wouldn’t have to as Hercules calmly intervened just in time. “Hades,” the hero garnished a glare of immense ire from the lord of the dead, one that only seemed to amuse him all the more as he motioned towards Olympus’ nearby glittering gates. “The exits’ that way.”

In all his anger, Hades had half a mind to put up a vicious fight regardless. However, as Zeus simply cleared his throat to carry across the unspoken reminder of his untold might, the lord of the dead begrudgingly decided to back off, knowing that if the Titans were no match this collective group combined, then chances were, neither was he. So instead, Hades simply let out a sour sigh of defeat, his flames returning to their usual blue as he began to sulk towards the gates, though he didn’t make it there as Hercules decided to stop him one more time.

“Oh, I almost forgot,” the hero interjected casually. His intent became immediately clear, however, as Hades glanced back towards him, only to be met with a swift, painful punch in the jaw. “That one’s for trying to wreck Thebes.”

“Augh! You’ll pay for this!” Hades shouted bitterly, darkness swirling around him as he rubbed his sore cheek. “You all will! I have a very, very long memory! I can still dunk your little Nut-Meg in a river of dea-” The lord of the dead was swiftly cut off as Zeus easily sent a single lightning bolt his way, eliciting a loud shriek of literal shock from Hades as he made his rather embarrassing retreat back to the Underworld, finally defeated.

For now, at least.


 

With Hades and the Titans gone, the radiant peace that Olympus was known for easily returned in full force. The gods and goddesses gladly took up their seats of prominence and power once more, Zeus included as he heralded his son and his trio of plucky mortal friends the noble heroes of the realm. Still, with Thebes likely still recovering from Hades’ onslaught, Hercules knew he couldn’t stay to take part in the jovial celebrations for too long. And so it was that the hero decided to make his return to the mortal realm down below, and just as before, Sora, Donald, and Goofy accompanied him, even as they passed through Olympus’ glorious gates once again. All the same, Hercules did stop short as soon as they did, pausing briefly to cast an almost wistful glance back at the world he knew he had come from, but wasn’t really a part of anymore. Once again, the all-too familiar question filled the hero’s mind, and it was a question that, ironically enough, Sora happened to curiously pose to him a mere moment later.

“Are you sure you wanna leave all this behind?” the Keybearer asked with something of a sympathetic frown.

“Yeah, isn’t Olympus your home?” Goofy inferred thoughtfully.

“Its where your family is, isn’t it?” Donald asked, sharing the concerned sentiment.

Hercules smiled softly at this, appreciating their worries though not fully sharing them as he looked past the gates towards the realm of the gods once more. “I can see my family anytime I want. But… if I stayed… then I’d have to be apart from the person I love most…. And that life would be empty.” The hero’s resolved smile widened a bit as he turned away from the gates and looked down the lengthy set of golden stairs leading up to it. There, waiting at the bottom for her hero’s return, was none other than Meg; she said nothing, but instead simply returned the loving look Hercules sent her way, love that the hero knew, would keep him coming back to her every single time. “I finally know where I belong,” Hercules said, a sense of confident finality in his tone. And then, without a second thought, the hero suddenly began bolting down the stairs, eager to brace the gap between him and Meg once and for all. The couple met in a tender, sweet embrace, one that easily conveyed their feelings for each other more than any words ever could.

Though the trio made sure to give the pair their privacy, they soon joined them at the bottom of the stairs, each of them warmed by such a touching sight. Meg and Hercules both returned their greeting grins as their hug dispelled and the hero turned to the Keybearer with a sense of renewed resolve. “Sora, we never got back to your question. Do you still think there’s any way I can help?”

Though grateful for Hercules’ kind offer, Sora, surprisingly enough, simply shook his head, much to the initial confusion of both of his companions. “Nah, its ok,” he assured with a genuine smile. “I think this is something I’m meant to figure out for myself. I’ll find my strength again the way you found yours: by fighting for something I care about… with all my heart. You know, its funny… I guess you did have the answer I was looking for after all.”

Hercules nodded firmly at this, glad to see that the Keybearer’s usual drive had finally returned in full force. “Well, you’ve definitely got heart, Sora. Just keep at it, and I know you’ll be stronger than ever in no time.”

“Yeah!” Sora exclaimed, playfully showing off his muscles, even if they didn’t really compare to the hero’s at all. “Who knows? I might even end up stronger than you are someday!”

“Oh brother…” Donald rolled his eyes at such a remark while Goofy chuckled in amusement. “There he goes again!”

“Hey, nothing’s impossible!” Sora shrugged, letting out a small, good-natured laugh of his own as he began to lead the way forward.

“You guys heading out again?” Hercules asked with a knowing smirk.

“Yeah, we really should get going,” the Keybearer noted a bit halfheartedly, always sad to leave good friends behind. “Sorry we can’t stay and help clean up the mess Hades caused.”

“Eh, don’t worry about it,” the hero assured with a shrug. “We have it covered.”

“Now don’t be strangers, you three,” Meg advised with a wry grin. “Come back and see us again soon, k?”

“Yes, ma’am!” the trio returned with an exuberant salute, waving their final farewells to the couple as they took their leave to make the long trek back to the Gummi Ship.

“Ya know, Olympus really is an amazin’ place,” Goofy noted as they began heading back down the mountain again.

“Yeah,” Donald agreed. “Hercules must really have a strong heart to chose to just give it all up like that!”

Upon hearing this, Sora stopped short, unbeknownst to his companions as he cast a small, brief glance at the sacred peak they were leaving behind. “A strong heart…” he mused quietly to himself, daring to ask himself the question of, if he was ever somehow in a position similar to Hercules’, whether or not he’d make the same choice himself. The Keybearer knew well that he’d never really known any sort of excessive power or position before, not that he ever really had much of a desire for those things in the first place. What Sora did know he wanted, what he had always wanted really, was to keep his friends safe, to be with them and stay with them, even though that hardly ever seemed to be the case anymore. But even so, if he ever had to chose between his friends: between Donald, Goofy, the king, Riku, Kairi and something far greater than he could ever hope to imagine, then he figured such a choice would beyond clear, to the point that he didn’t even have to think twine, even hypothetically speaking.

His friends would always, always come first, no matter who… or what tried to come between.

Chapter Text

Faith, should I take the leap?

Darkness, raw and unfettered, stretched out as far as the eye could see, drenching seemingly every single inch of the realm in a mire of empty gloom. Each rock, spire, and landmass was permeated by it, just as much as the silent air and infertile soil were. It was a vast, lonely, hopeless place, devoid of any light or natural life or even the passage of time itself to bring any sort of change to its ever-stagnant shadows.

This was the Realm of Darkness. And it was here, to this distant place devoid of light, that Riku and Mickey had ventured into to begin their search for Master Aqua.

It was a risky endeavor, of that much they were both certain. After all, the Dark World itself seemed to react quite harshly to anything or anyone that came from the Realm of Light, as the pair had already discovered from the flock of Heartless that had beset them almost as soon as they arrived. Even so, they had made quick work of the creatures and ventured onward into the darkness, hoping to find at the very least some conclusive clues as to Aqua’s whereabouts, if not the lost Master herself.

Yet despite their shared resolve, their task was still rather daunting all the same, the ever-looming threat of Heartless on the prowl aside. The Realm of Darkness was a vast, largely unexplored territory, with multiple different layers and facets to it. Aqua could literally have been anywhere within it, perhaps even in the deepest layers of darkness itself. Fortunately for Riku and Mickey, they were both clad in new clothing given to them by Master Yen Sid, meant to guard them from the invasive darkness all around them. Aqua, on the other hand, had not been so lucky for her lengthy stint in the shadows, which meant that time was certainly of the essence when it came to pulling her out of them and back into the light where she belonged.

Which was why the pair kept up a steady pace as they traversed the realm’s barren paths, only illuminated by the bizarre blue cracks in the uneven spires all around them. Mickey led the way, more familiar with the Dark World thanks to his previous journey there alongside Aqua herself. However, the king did stop short upon hearing Riku’s footfalls slowly grow silent behind him.

“What’s wrong, Riku?” Mickey asked, curious as he turned to face his companion. “Are you tired? Ya know, they say that just being in the Realm of Darkness can wear you out if you’re not careful, so if you need a break, we can stop for a bit if ya want to.”

Riku glanced up, offering the king a small smile of gratitude for his concern as he shook his head. “No, it’s just… I’ve been here before. I should know this place. But all that seems like another life now… Its kind of hard to believe it wasn’t even that long ago.”

“Well, gee, think of all you’ve seen since then! All the feelings you’ve felt!” Mickey grinned, clearly proud of Riku’s progress. Progress that the king had largely gotten to witness first hand since their respective paths tended to intertwine so frequently. “Why, you’ve done years of growin’ in almost no time at all!”

“It really does feel like I have…” Riku agreed thoughtfully. “I remember the first time I was here. I was so scared. But now, my doubts and fears are gone. If anything, I feel exhilarated. And its not because there’s darkness in me—I know all too well what that rush is like. This is different. And its not just adrenaline either; I know Aqua needs us… but I’m ready. I’m in control now. Maybe its because you’re with me this time,” he theorized, smiling down at the king.

Mickey, however, shook his head knowingly. “Its not me. I think it’s because you’ve finally found that special strength inside you to protect what matters.”

“What?” Riku asked, struck by a sudden sense of familiarity he couldn’t quite place upon hearing this.

“Sometimes, you care for someone so much that other feelings disappear,” Mickey explained. “And then, there’s no room for fear or doubt.”

“…Is that it?” Riku asked, genuinely surprised that it was all so simple. Perhaps when he was younger and less experienced, he would have callously doubted that such strength and confidence could come merely from feelings of the heart. But after everything he’d experienced and seen, he had no problem believing that fact like it was the most sensical thing in all the worlds.

And that wasn’t the only reason either. As the newly-named Master glanced down at his hand, a memory stirred, one from a long time ago, when a Keyblade had been placed into his hand for the very first time. He had been much younger, much more innocent but filled with a deep curiosity about the worlds beyond the peaceful islands he had always known. And that curiosity was even more peaked that day, when a young man from the outside world itself appeared before him. The young man was strong and formidable, but his eyes were kind and his tone gentle as he respectfully addressed the younger Riku as though he was his equal.

“Is there some reason you’re interested in the outside world?” the young man had asked, genuinely intrigued.

Riku had nodded. “Yeah. I wanna be strong someday, like that kid who left. He went to the outside world; I bet he’s really strong now.” The young man’s brow had furrowed at this, but even so, Riku continued. “I know its out there somewhere. The strength that I need.”

“Strength for what?”

“To protect what matters,” Riku had smiled, especially as his gaze drifted off towards where Sora was eagerly waiting for him from afar. “You know, like my friends.”

The young man had offered him his own warm smile at this as he beckoned the boy closer to him. “Outside this tiny world is a much bigger one.”  Within his grasp, a large, sturdy Keyblade had materialized, and, not knowing what it was at the time, Riku had stared at the grand weapon in wonder, especially as the young man held it out to him. “In your hand, take this key. So long as you have the makings, then through this simple act of taking, its wielder you shall one day be. And you will find me, friend—no ocean will contain you then. No more borders around, or below, or above, so long as you champion the ones you love.”

And just like that, a Keyblade had been bequeathed.

It was a memory Riku hadn’t thought of too often, but as of late, it had been coming back to him more and more frequently. Perhaps it had something to do with him recently receiving the title of Master or something else altogether, but he could feel it. The hopeful words of that young man, whoever he might have been, had rung true for him before and even now. So long as he fought to protect those he cared for, then there really were no limits to what he could do.

“Strength to protect what matters…” Riku repeated softly to himself before addressing Mickey once more. “It reminds me of a promise I made.”

“Really? To who?” the king asked, intrigued.

“Just someone I once met,” Riku said coolly, remembering the other part of the promise he had made to the young man: to keep that vow a secret. “Can’t tell.”

“Well, it sure sounds like a good memory,” Mickey grinned all the same.

“Yeah… it was…” Riku nodded, though his manner soon turned serious as he spared another glance at the darkness all around them. “While we’re reminiscing… Mickey, does any of this look familiar to you?”

“Sort of, but the Realm of Darkness has changed since I was here with Aqua,” the king informed.

“Yeah, its different from what I remember too…” Riku mused. “Kind of makes finding our way around here a bit of a challenge, huh?”

“Usually, I’d just follow my heart, and Aqua would show me the way,” Mickey said, knowing that very method had led him to her here before. “But… the closer I get, the hazier the connection feels…”

Riku frowned with apt concern upon hearing this. “You mean…?” he trailed off, hoping that their journey here wasn’t all for naught.

“M-maybe…” Mickey sighed, not liking to fear the worst. “But we can’t give up hope! We’ll just have to keep looking until we finally find her!”

“Right,” Riku agreed solidly, knowing that Aqua had given up so much to rescue him before. And that was a debt to her that he knew, simply couldn’t go unpaid.

And so the pair continued on their way, delving ever deeper through the cavernous darkness as they forged the path ahead. Thankfully, few Heartless beset them along the way and the ones that did were generally easily defeated. Yet even still, their search seemed rather directionless, even with Mickey attempting to lead the way, as neither of them were able to find even the slightest sign that Aqua was anywhere nearby. A fruitless trend that continued even as the pair happened upon an empty moonlit shore, the very edge of the Dark World itself, the Dark Margin.

“This beach…” Riku spoke up, instantly struck by the odd nostalgia of this shore as they walked across its shadowed sands. Though before he could elaborate on it, Mickey interrupted, his tone fretful and apprehensive.

“It’s gone…” the king said, stepping forward.

“Huh?” Riku asked, confused.

“I’m positive Aqua was here,” Mickey said and indeed it was true. He held felt a spark of light, however faint, that he could have sworn belonged to the lost Master. But upon following that spark to this very spot, not only was she nowhere to be found, but her spark seemed to disappear almost as soon as they arrived. “But now… her trail’s gone dim…”

“I’ve been here too,” Riku said, looking around. “With Sora. This is where we found our way back into the Realm of Light.” The new Master gasped as he reached a sudden realization that, based on all he knew of this shore, could have very well been true. Or at least, he hoped it was. “Hey, maybe Aqua did too!”

As hopeful of a theory as this was, Mickey was quick to shoot it down, knowing that the truth was much more grim. “Aqua… has fallen into an even darker abyss,” he said sadly as he turned to the gloomy ocean before them. “Somewhere I can’t see her. And I don’t think we’re equipped to dive any deeper than we already are.”

“So then…” Riku began, slumping his shoulders in defeat over their currently lost cause. “Are we going to have to-”

He never got a chance to finish as they were unexpectedly interrupted as a swap of Heartless—a much larger group than any they had encountered thus far—suddenly rose up from the sand before them. “Oh no!” Mickey exclaimed as both he and Riku summoned their Keyblades. “Riku… be careful,” the king advised as they both took up their battle stances. “Even the least threatening Heartless are stronger in this realm.”

“Got it,” Riku heeded the king’s warning as he held his Keyblade back, ready to strike. However, oddly enough the Heartless didn’t move to do the same, at least not at first. Instead, the shadows rushed past the pair of Keyblade wielders, frantically skittering so they could all join together near the shoreline. And once they did, they instantly converged, uniting in an explosion of darkness to create a writhing, massive wave of Heartless: a Demon Tide.

The towering horde of creatures let out a collective shriek, one that was more than enough to prompt both Mickey and Riku into action against it. The pair narrowly dodged the tide as it crashed down into the sand between them, a few Heartless falling away during the impact, though they quickly pieced themselves back into the mass. Riku and Mickey were quick to retaliate though, both of them countering back with a shared, well-timed slash against the base of the shadow tower. The force was enough to not only push the Demon Tide back, but also obliterate several of the Heartless that composed it, though it was clear it showed no signs of slowing down yet.

“Riku!” Mickey called over the din of the battle as they both leapt away from the tide. “We have to attack its core!”

Riku took the briefest of pauses, scrutinizing the swirling tower before spotting exactly what Mickey was talking about: a brightly glowing orange orb at the center of the tide, largely concealed by the thrall of Heartless covering it. “I’m on it!” he called, brazenly rushing in. To distract the shadows, Riku shook them up with a spell of darkened ice, freezing the tower’s base in place as he jumped high to strike the core. Mickey hurried after him, providing ample backup in the event that the ice broke, which it quickly did. The tide lashed out to knock Riku away from it, only to be stalled by the king’s Keyblade diving through it, taking out several of its Heartless in the process. With the other shadows as stunned as they were from such a devastating blow, Riku came in with one of his own, this time aimed for the newly-opened core. His strike hit true as the tip of his Keyblade rammed into the orb, destroying it on contact. And, with nothing else to hold them all together, the Demon Tide quickly fell apart.

Riku and Mickey allowed themselves the smallest moment of rest as the Heartless collapsed back onto the shore. Unfortunately, as scattered as they were, they weren’t defeated, as they made entirely clear as they rose up from the shadows once again. “It’s not over yet!” Mickey warned, already knocking a Heartless away. “Be careful!”

Before Riku could even think about responding, a sudden explosion of darkness rocked the entire beach. The culprit was an entirely new Demon Tide, one that burst forth from the natural shadows of the realm to attack the unwelcome pair. And, try as he might to stand against this new threat, Riku only had enough time to turn towards it before it slammed directly into him at full force.

He barely heard Mickey’s alarmed shout from afar before the darkness swallowed him whole.


 

He was drowning. Drowning in the deepest mire of darkness itself.

It was strange how much it felt like water, cold and wet and thick. But in many ways, it was so very different: heavy, crushing, suffocating. Within its inescapable hold, he couldn’t see, he couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t think. All he could do was wait, his lungs, his heart, his entire body shuddering with pain as the leeching darkness seeped into them, for the lonely demise he knew was sure to come.

That is, until a voice, so faint he could barely even catch it, broke through the darkness.

“Didn’t expect to see you again,” it spoke, practically unintelligible as soft and distant as it was. Still, it was a voice that he instantly recognized all the same, his eyes opening wide the very moment he heard it.

“W-what…?” he dared to ask, still choking on the darkness entrenching him. Even so, he ignored that for now, glancing around the void as the voice spoke again.

“Why did you even come here?” it asked, a hint of wry teasing in its muffled, nearly indiscernible tone.

“B-because somebody needs me…” he answered weakly, clenching his agonized chest tightly as he remembered his resolve. His journey wouldn’t end here, it couldn’t. Not when he still had so much he needed to do.

“…Do you want some help?” the voice questioned after a moment of apparent hesitation.

“W-who… who are you?” he asked, flinching in pain once again. The voice was undoubtably familiar, but as lost in the crippling shadows as he currently was, he had a hard time remembering exactly who it was.

“Me?” the voice asked, just as he found he was unable to hold on any longer. His vision dimmed as the darkness flooded into him in full force, sending him drifting even further into the empty void as he heard the voice’s final word. “I’m-”


 

“R-Riku? Wake up!”

Slowly but surely, he did just that, his eyes blinking open only to find Mickey standing over him, his expression rife with immense concern. Riku let out a deep breath as his senses slowly returned to him, though even so, the king’s relieved, joyful grin was not lost on him. “You’re ok!” Mickey exclaimed, offering him a hand to help him up.

Riku didn’t take it however as he sat up on his own, his entire body still aching slightly, though other than that, he seemed to be uninjured. What did seem to be off however, was his hair as he absently ran a hand through it, noting that it was quite a good bit shorter than it had been mere moments ago. How did THAT happen? He wondered incredulously, though even so, he didn’t bother sparing too much more thought on the matter. After all, there were much more important things to worry about now. “Where did the Heartless go?” Riku asked Mickey, noticing that the beach was still and empty once again.

“I got more than half of ‘em,” the king reported. “And the rest vanished. But they spit you out first.”

“Thanks…” Riku groaned, pressing a hand against his still pounding head as he rose to stand. “I owe you.”

“I know ya feel invincible,” Mickey advised with a cautious frown. “But we’re not. Especially not here.”

Riku nodded, heeding the king’s advice. “Are you all right, Mickey?” he asked, placing his own concerns with his companion.

“Yeah, thanks to the new gear,” the king smiled as he tugged on his new jacket. “But… your Keyblade…”

“Oh…” Riku glanced down at the weapon in his hand, or rather, what was left of it. The Way to Dawn had been absolutely shattered, its once sharp and stately tip broken completely off by the swarming mob of Heartless. In its current form, the Keyblade was now effectively useless, and unfortunately, neither Riku nor Mickey had any means or knowledge on fixing it.

“The Heartless here are stronger than we expected,” Mickey piped up as Riku continued inspecting his broken Keyblade. “I guess we probably should have powered up our Keyblades before we came in here, huh?”

Riku said nothing, save for a somewhat forlorn sigh as he looked back down at the Way to Dawn again. That Keyblade had gotten him through many tight spots in the past and in many ways, it was the very weapon that had led him to becoming a Master in the first place. But even his own deep attachment to it hadn’t been enough to save it in the end, much to his bitter disappointment.

“I think we need to go back to Master Yen Sid’s tower so we can regroup,” Mickey continued sternly. And while Riku normally would have agreed on such a wise plan of action, he knew their work in this realm was far from finished.

“But… Aqua’s still down here, alone, facing enemies like that,” he said with apt concern for the missing Master.

“I-I know…” Mickey sighed fretfully. Of course, he wasn’t keen on the idea of letting Aqua languish in the darkness any further either. But if neither of them survived this realm and its treacherous traps to save her, then who would?

“What if she’s feeling as scared and alone… as I felt the first time I came here?” Riku asked as he gazed out upon the endless sea of shadow before him. “How long are we supposed to keep her waiting in this awful place?”

Sensing Riku’s guilt and melancholy over the matter, Mickey didn’t hesitate to step over to the shoreline to join him. A beat of pensive silence passed between the pair as they contemplated Aqua’s unknown, dark fate, but even so, the king still had hope that his longtime friend would be alright. And that hope was what he knew he had to share with Riku now. “I know you’re worried about her, and I am too,” Mickey began earnestly. “But Aqua… she’s like Sora.”

What?!” Riku gasped, dumbfounded by the king’s implications. After all, he had always heard that Aqua was a wise, coolheaded Keyblade Master. But to think that she could be anywhere near as thoughtlessly reckless and wildly brazen as Sora often tended to be was more than enough to floor Riku completely.

“No, no, no! I meant she’s strong like Sora!” Mickey quickly clarified, understanding the new Master’s shock well.

At this, Riku let out a sigh of relief, glad to know that they wouldn’t essentially have two Soras running around once they brought Aqua back. One was enough to worry about as it was. “Ok, good,” Riku nodded, more allayed than before. “Then if her heart really is as strong as his, then she’ll be alright. Sora could fall into any darkness and swim his way out. So, if Aqua can do the same, then I guess we won’t have to worry.”

“That’s right,” Mickey readily agreed. “Besides, we won’t be too long. All we gotta do is get you a new Keyblade and look for clues about where to find her, and we should be more than ready to come back here and save her, once and for all!”

Riku nodded resolutely upon hearing this, more than ready to do just that. Still, for the time being, he decided that there was one final thing he needed to do before they returned to the Realm of Light. With a sift, single movement, he plunged what was left of the Way to Dawn into the sand, smiling sadly as he backed away from its new resting place. “Can’t use this Keyblade anymore,” he said, closing his eyes thoughtfully as he thought back to the distant voice that had beckoned to him within the empty void. The voice that had brought him back from the very brink of destruction. “Might as well leave it here… In case the other me needs it.”

Mickey looked to Riku with genuine confusion upon hearing this, though he didn’t get the chance to ask the new Master what he meant as he turned to leave. Briefly sparing a glance back at the broken Keyblade, the king hurried after him, both of them intent on making their return as soon as possible. And next time they came, they both silently vowed as they left the Dark Margin behind, they wouldn’t be leaving without Aqua by their side.


 

Fresh off their harrowing adventure in Olympus, Sora, Donald, and Goofy had unanimously decided that the best course of action for them to take would be to return to the Mysterious Tower to report their progress to Master Yen Sid. Or rather, their respective lack of progress, something that the sorcerer took in with the same sense of masked disappointment the trio themselves were feeling as they gathered before him.

“I see…” Yen Sid mused, stroking his long beard. “So you could not regain your strength…”

“Aw, no biggie,” Sora shrugged, putting on a casual front, even though that fact still did bother him at least a bit. “I still learned a lot.”

“Regardless, Sora,” the sorcerer said, his tone as serious as ever. “You will still need the power of waking.”

Despite bis best efforts to stay positive, Sora couldn’t help but let out a small, defeated sigh at this, knowing just as well as everyone else that the power of waking had eluded him during his failed Mark of Mastery exam and it still completely eluded him now. And though he had every intention of taking the helpful advice Hercules had offered him to heart, the Keybearer didn’t exactly know how it could possibly assist him in achieving a power as mysterious and special as that.

“It can’t be gone forever!” Goofy spoke up in an earnest attempt at encouraging Sora. “Maybe somethin’ll trigger it real soon!”

“Like what, exactly?” the Keybearer asked dubiously.

“I know!” Donald chimed in. “How about a good bonk on the head!?”

“Hey!” Sora retorted, hands on his hips.

“Perhaps it could be something as simple as that,” Yen Sid interjected surprisingly.

“Wait, you think so too?” the Keybearer asked as he turned to the sorcerer incredulously.

“Whenever you are in need,” Yen Sid began thoughtfully. “Magic happens. That is perhaps your greatest strength, Sora.”

“You make it sound like an accident…” Sora huffed, largely ignoring Donald and Goofy as they chuckled in slight amusement beside him.

“All the same,” Yen Sid spoke up, garnishing the trio’s full attention once more. “For now I am curious to know: were there any more significant developments the three of you might have come across during your brief journey?”

Sora was more than ready to answer this question, eager to detail their concerning encounters with Maleficent and Pete as well as Xigbar. However, before he could, Donald and Goofy cut in with perhaps the last story the Keybearer wanted getting out when it came to their most recent adventure.

“W-well, ya’see, we were fightin’ a whole bunch of Heartless,” Goofy began, catching a curious glance from Sora, who wondered exactly where the captain was going with this.

“And Sora had gotten himself hurt by not listening to us, as usual…” Donald continued, crossing his arms.

“A-and when we tried getting’ rid of ‘em,” Goofy said, his apprehension over the perilous tale quite clear. “S-Sora… well, he-”

“I-I got back up and cleared them all out, no problem!” Sora hastily exclaimed before either of his companions could say what really happened. His manner was tight and anxious as he offered the sorcerer a wide, rather forced smile, hoping that he wouldn’t catch on, even though Donald and Goofy already had.

“Wha-?!” Donald scoffed, looking to the Keybearer suspiciously. “That’s not what happ-”

“Y-yep, that’s absolutely what happened!” Sora reiterated, cutting the magician off by rushing to cover his beak before he could even get another word out. Despite Donald angrily flailing against him, the Keybearer still kept up his almost aggressively cheerful grin, silently wishing that both of his companions would let this shameful matter finally go. “It was pretty boring though, which means we really don’t have to talk about it anymore!”

“Would you get off of me?!” Donald fussed as he finally pushed Sora away, clearly frustrated. Goofy looked between the pair, clearly confused, though upon catching a rather pleading look from the Keybearer, he was quick to finally get the gist himself.

“Oh! T-that’s right!” the captain covered, much to Sora’s immense relief. “It really wasn’t anything special. And of course it didn’t have anything to do with any sorta darkness, if that’s what you’re thinkin’!”

Thinking that Goofy’s last comment might have been a bit too obvious, Sora let out a small, exasperated groan as he pinched the bridge of his nose, disgruntled. Miraculously enough, however, Yen Sid didn’t seem to want to pursue this tale any further as he merely took them by their word instead.

“Very well then,” the sorcerer nodded simply. “It is good to hear that some of your usual verve and vigor in the heat of battle has returned to you, Sora. That is an important milestone on the path to reclaiming your lost strength.”

“Y-yeah…” Sora said with a rather nervous sigh. “I guess it is…” In truth, he was rather guilty about the rather blatant lie he had just fronted, even more guilty about dragging Donald and Goofy into it along with him. But the last thing he needed now was for the sorcerer, or anyone else for that matter, knowing about his recent accidental slip into darkness. Especially when he was still trying to rise above such darkness in the first place.

Of course, the trio was set to truthfully discuss the foes they had seen in Olympus with the sorcerer, but before they could, the chamber’s door suddenly began to creak open, heralding a most unexpected arrival. Or rather, an unexpected return.

“We’re back, Master!!” Mickey called as he entered first, Riku trailing not too far behind. The pair had only just reentered the Realm of Light, but they figured they had no time to waste in seeking Yen Sid’s counsel on what they should do next.

 “Whoa!” Sora gasped in amazement over the pair’s new outfits as he quickly turned to face them.

“Oh wow, you guys are all here!” the king greeted the trio blithely.

“We were here before,” Sora said. “But you guys didn’t wait for u—w-whoa!”

The Keybearer was succinctly cut off as well as abruptly shoved aside by both Donald and Goofy, who were both more than excited to see their king safe and sound. “Your majesty!” the magician cried happily as both him and the captain warmly embraced their longtime friend.

“Heya, fellas!” Mickey chuckled as he returned the hug. “What have you three been up to?”

At this, Sora attempted to intervene, regathering his bearings as he hurried over to the group. “We were visiti-”

Once again, he was shoved back by both of his companions, both of whom were eager to have this rare opportunity to visit with the king. “We went to Olympus to visit Hercules!” Donald exclaimed zealously.

“And to figure out how to get all of Sora’s lost powers back!” Goofy added just as brightly.

“But it was a big disappointment,” the magician whispered to the king, albeit not very discreetly.

“Oh, c’mon, do we have to tell everybody that?” Sora huffed, aggravated as he sat up from his fallen spot on the ground.

“Aw, well, that’s a real shame,” Mickey said with genuine sympathy. “But honestly…”

“We didn’t fare any better,” Riku picked up where the king left off.

“Oh! Did ya manage to figure out where Aqua is?” Goofy asked, curious.

“Even a hint?” Donald pressed as he noticed the pairs’ expressions falter.

In light of the disheartening discovery they had made in the Realm of Darkness concerning Aqua’s whereabouts, the most either Mickey or Riku could do was shake their heads sadly. This dejection was quick to spread to Donald and Goofy as they let out their own respective sighs as well. The pair had only ever briefly met Aqua years ago, but all the same, they still hoped for her safe return from the darkness just as much as the king and Riku themselves did.

“We know Master Aqua made it as far as the beach that Sora and I once visited,” Riku reported solemnly. “But that’s where her trail ends.”

“Meaning…?” Sora asked, joining in on the concern as he came to stand alongside Donald and Goofy.

“All traces of her vanish into the great abyss,” Mickey said, frowning. “Beneath the Realm of Darkness, where even we can’t go. At least not right now.”

“So… she’s gone?” Donald asked fretfully.

“No,” Riku said with a sense of firm resolve. “Sora was dragged into the abyss during his exam, and I went in after him. So… I think if we find someone who was really close to Aqua, and they make the dive, maybe they could reach her down there.”

As hopeful as this idea sounded to everyone else, Mickey simply shook his head sadly over it, knowing just how impossible it really was to carry out. “I’m not even sure whose left to ask,” the king said remorsefully. “Ventus is hidden, and Aqua’s the only one who knows where. Plus, nobody’s seen Terra in ages; Aqua was the last.”

“So Aqua—she’s bound to be the key to finding all three…” Riku mused, realizing just how much of a challenge that would be with Aqua herself as far out of their reach as she currently was.

“Yes,” Yen Sid spoke up, his tone rather grave. “Their teacher, Master Eraqus, would have been another possibility… had Xehanort not mercilessly struck him down….”

The sorcerer bowed his head at this out of respect for his fallen friend. Likewise, a morose, reverent silence filled the room as a whole, with just about everyone at a complete loss about what they could do to help Aqua, Terra, or Ventus alike. But then, just as the relative hopelessness of the situation began to sink in, a burst of unexpected warmth seemed to rush through Sora’s heart. It was faint, yet bright and sudden and perhaps even oddly familiar as it carried a sense of earnest longing mingled with dutiful purpose. And it was that purpose that drove him to readily speak without so much as even thinking about it, because if no one else could help Aqua, then he would.

“I’ll save her!” he volunteered boldly, brazenly. However, almost as soon as he did, he was quick to snap back into reality upon hearing the flabbergasted gasps of his companions.

“Wha-!? You can’t!” Donald scoffed disapprovingly.

“Yeah, Sora,” Goofy said much more patiently. “That’s gonna be super hard since you don’t have the power of waking.”

“Huh?” Sora blinked, shaking his head to clear it. The warmth that had so strangely filled his heart quickly died down, leaving only a brief sense of confusion over where it had come from in its place. “Sorry… I have no idea why that just popped out…”

“Well, it was pretty convincing,” Mickey said with a small smile.

“Yeah,” Riku smirked somewhat playfully to Sora himself. “Better not let us down.”

As the others all let out a small, much-needed laugh over this, none of them noticed Yen Sid perk up in his seat a bit behind them, almost as if he had noticed something none of the rest of them had. “Sora,” the sorcerer began, his authoritative tone catching the attention of the entire group. “You must focus on regaining your lost power of waking. Mickey and Riku, I recall that Master Aqua visited many worlds and connected with others who could be the link we need. Seek these places out in the hopes of finding a heart bonded strongly enough to hers’, with fortitude and strength enough to pull her out of the darkness she is now trapped within.”

“Good plan, sir,” Mickey nodded in solid agreement, hoping this course of action could finally lead them to the answers they were seeking. “Riku and I will retrace her steps and see if we can find any clues, but first…” The king stepped closer to the sorcerer’s desk. “We got hit pretty hard in the Realm of Darkness. My Keyblade was damaged, and Heartless broke Riku’s clean in half. So we’re gonna need to get replacements before we can continue.”

“In that case….” Yen Sid said. “Rendezvous with Kairi and Lea. As you are already aware, they are continuing their training under the tutelage of the wizard Merlin. Furthermore, I would like you to deliver these for me.” The sorcerer waved his hand over his desk, conjuring up two rather familiar-looking suitcases.

“Oh!” Mickey exclaimed, recognizing this type of luggage from before. “Are they…?”

“Yes, they are the same as the ones I gave you,” Yen Sid nodded, glancing briefly between both Riku and Mickey. “Special vestments to shield Lea and Kairi from the darkness.”

“What?” Sora spoke up from across the room as the pair took the suitcases, not even bothering to hide his obvious disappointment. “No fair! What about my outfit, Master?”

“Sora!” Donald quickly chastised harshly. “Don’t bug him like that! Its inconsiderate!”

“Settle down,” Yen Sid evenly cut in. “I have new clothes for you too, Sora. A gift from the good fairies.”

“Yes!” Sora cheered excitedly as a third and final suitcase appeared on the sorcerer’s desk, one that he didn’t hesitate to rush up to claim. “I knew you’d come through for me! Thanks!”

“These are no ordinary garments, Sora,” Yen Sid advised. “Like before, they have very special powers, so it took extra time to prepare them. In addition, there is also a gift from Chip and Dale inside.”

“Ok, cool!” Sora grinned as he shook the suitcase up, more than eager to see what it contained.

“Happy now?” Riku asked with a knowing smirk.

“Yep!” the Keybearer quipped, slinging the case over his shoulder.

“Also, Sora,” Yen Sid spoke up once more. “I am certain you recall our earlier conversation regarding the thirteen Keys to Kingdom Hearts. Well, after further deliberation, I have decided to permit you, Donald, and Goofy to go out amongst the worlds and seek them out after all, in the hopes of obtaining most, if not all of them before Xehanort and his followers do first.”

“Whoa, really?” Sora asked, Donald and Goofy echoing his amazement over being tasked with something so very monumental. “Ha! See, I told you guys we’d get to do something important soon!” he exclaimed, flashing a proud grin back at his baffled companions.

“Gosh, the thirteen Keys to the Kingdom…” Mickey mused, familiar with the old legend thanks to his master’s teachings. “Searching for them really is an awfully big responsibility, but I’m sure you fellas are up to the challenge!”

“As am I,” Yen Sid nodded his agreement. “This will be no easy task; even with the members of Organization XIII that you will no doubt have to contend with while searching for them, the Keys themselves are rumored to be notoriously hard to find. Inasmuch as they are connected to Kingdom Hearts itself, each one is tied to the very nature of the heart and the feelings it is known to express. Perhaps that knowledge will prove to be of assistance in your search.”

“Um, ok… feelings…” Sora repeated, rather confused. “Makes sense, I guess,” he said, even though it really didn’t.

“Worry not, Sora,” the sorcerer said with a smallest hint of a bemused grin. “So long as you follow your own heart to wherever it may lead, then I have no doubt the Keys will find their way to you. And who knows? Perhaps exploring worlds both old and new will not only help you regain your lost strength. It could even stir up the lost power of waking within you.”

“I hope so…” Sora muttered to himself wistfully upon hearing this, longing to claim that all-important power that still eluded him. Of course the only problem that remained was that he had no idea how.

“And with that, I believe you are all ready to proceed,” Yen Sid said conclusively to the entire group. They were all just about to embark on their respective missions too, until a small, but spritely voice cut in.

“Hey, wait! Don’t forget about me!”

“Jiminy!” Sora, Donald, and Goofy all exclaimed excitedly, watching as the cricket hurried across the sorcerer’s desk to greet them. It had been quite some time since they’d all seen him, not since their last journey together really, so suffice to say they were unanimously glad to reunite with their favorite tiny record-keeper once more.

“Every journey worth goin’ on needs a cricket to keep track of it,” Jiminy grinned as he tipped his hat to the trio. “And I can’t let ya start this one without ol’ Jiminy Cricket by your side!”

“The whole team’s back together again!” Goofy chimed in brightly.

“Yeah! On a whole new adventure!” Donald quipped, just as excited.

Oddly enough, Sora said nothing as he simply looked between his trio of loyal companions, a warm smile on his face at the thought of exploring the worlds with his friends by his side once again. Regardless of the danger the Organization might pose and the challenges they might face in finding the Keys, he was confident that they’d get through it all just fine so long as they stuck together. Just as they always had.

“Well, looks like its time to go!” Mickey exclaimed, setting an example for all the others as he snapped into ready attention for the sorcerer. Everyone else quickly followed suit, offering Yen Sid a respectful bow, though only Sora, Donald, and Goofy happened to catch the final statement he only barely managed to whisper under his breath. A statement that they had shared amongst themselves once before, but only now were hearing it from the sorcerer himself as he spoke it to the trio, with all the hope and assurance it carried along with it.

“…May your heart be your guiding key…”


 

As eager as they all were to set out on their respective journeys, the collective group began to spill out of the tower almost as soon as Yen Sid dismissed them. Still, that didn’t mean that they weren’t going to spare at least a brief moment or two for one fond, final farewell amongst themselves.

Donald and Goofy had already whisked the king aside to bombard him with plenty of hugs and well wishes, leaving Sora and Riku a chance to converse on their own terms. Something that they hadn’t done in quite some time now.

“I know you don’t really need it,” Sora began, offering his friend a wry, yet encouraging grin. “But good luck. I really hope you guys can find a way to help Aqua, but then again, I don’t think that’ll be too hard for you, “Mr. Master”.”

Riku couldn’t hold back a small chuckle at this, amused as ever by Sora’s lighthearted sense of humor. “Thanks. Still, I have a feeling that saving Aqua is gonna be easier said than done. First we’ll have to drop these clothes off with Kairi and Lea, and then-”

“Oh yeah!” Sora interupted excitedly. “When you see Kairi, tell her I said hi, ok?”

“You really thought I wouldn’t?” Riku asked with a sardonic grin.

“Hey, just making sure,” the Keybearer returned his smirk as he hung his hands behind his head. “It feels like it’s been forever since the three of us have all been together in the same place. Once all this is over, we really need to hang out, just you, me, and Kairi. Just like it always used to be.”

“Yeah…” Riku agreed, though his smile soon faltered as he glanced back over at his friend beside him. “Sora… I… a-are… are you feeling all right?”

“Of course, I am,” Sora looked over at him, confused. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

Riku’s frown deepened as he closed his eyes. “I know I’m probably just worrying over nothing,” he began pensively. “But I can’t stop thinking about what happened during our exam. A-about… just how close Xehanort was to turning you into one of his vessels.”

“Y-yeah, but he didn’t!” Sora quickly said with somewhat unsteady smile. “So, crisis averted. Nothing to worry about anymore, right?”

“Wrong,” Riku crossed his arms and bowed his head, seemingly ashamed. “If Lea hadn’t jumped in when he did, I don’t think I would have been able to save you on my own. I wasn’t…” Strong enough to protect what matters most, was what he almost said, though something else came out instead. “I didn’t protect you like I should have. I’m sorry.”

For a moment, Sora said nothing, instead keeping his immensely concerned sights on his friend alone. He was honestly quite surprised that Riku seemed to take so much personal responsibility for something that, up until now, he had largely been blaming on himself. Which was why Sora knew he had to set the record straight right then and there, if not for his own solace, then for Riku’s. “B-but you did protect me!” he countered earnestly. “You were the one who dove into my heart to wake me up! Heck, if it wasn’t for you, I probably wouldn’t even be standing here right now! So don’t say sorry. Say you’re welcome instead!”

“You’re welcome?” Riku raised an eyebrow. “For what?”

“For the huge thank you I’m giving you right now for all of it!” Sora exclaimed, catching Riku off guard with a tight, unexpected hug.

Despite his prior despondency, the new Master was quick to catch his friend’s almost infectious cheerfulness as he let out a small laugh, returning the embrace, albeit less tightly. “How is that you always know what to say to make someone feel better?” Riku asked, still grinning.

“Eh, it’s a gift,” Sora shrugged blithely as they parted. The levity was short-lived however, as the Keybearer briefly thought back on Riku’s initial worry over him in the first place. Worry that, given what happened back in Olympus, might not have been as unfounded as Riku said it likely was. “Um… actually, Riku, I-I…” Sora trailed off, hesitating, though he had no real idea why. Leaving Yen Sid out of the loop made some form of sense; the last thing the Keybearer wanted or needed was any further admonishment over his faltering strength, which had no doubt been a factor in his recent bout of losing himself to darkness. But Riku… Sora knew he could trust Riku—he always had and he always would—even with something as alarming, even downright terrifying as this. So why then, did he still feel as though he couldn’t?

“Sora?” Riku spoke up, noticing his friend’s clear apprehension. “What’s wrong?”

“I-It’s nothing!” the Keybearer quickly blurted out against his better judgement. “N-nothing’s wrong. I just… wanted to give you one last goodbye!” he finished with a forced smile, nodding over to Donald and Goofy, who were already waiting for him near the Gummi Ship.

Of course, Riku didn’t instantly buy this, instead scrutinizing Sora with a rather critical glance. The Keybearer practically seized up at this, knowing that the new Master had a knack for reading him all too well. “Are you sure?” he asked, his expression softening after a beat. “Because if you ever feel like something is wrong, then I want to be the first to know.”

“O-oh believe me, you will be,” Sora assured, trying to mask his own guilt as he said it. For something had indeed gone wrong back in Olympus, when darkness had covered his heart, mind, and body like a shroud and left him with far more questions than answers, far more dread than hope. And as much as he wanted to, at the very least, confide in Riku about just how frightening that moment, that absolute loss of all control, had been, he instead kept that burden to himself, however unbearable it might have been.

“Good,” Riku nodded, resolute. “Looks like its time for both of us to head out.” He turned slightly with the intent of joining Mickey for their own departure. “Be careful out there, ok? I don’t doubt that Donald and Goofy will keep an eye on you, but you need to keep an eye on yourself too. Got it?”

“Y-yeah…” Sora said with a halfhearted smile, sending Riku a wave of farewell as he turned to walk off and regroup with his companions. “Got it…”

Of course, Riku noticed the uneasiness in Sora’s tone (it wasn’t like he had made too much of an effort to hide it), and though he was tempted to turn back around and find out exactly where it was coming from, he didn’t. He knew it wasn’t like Sora to keep secrets from anyone really, especially him. They had both usually been nothing if not honest with each other—or at least as honest as they could be, certain shameful moments in the past notwithstanding. Which was why Riku couldn’t understand exactly what Sora was holding back from him and why. It was something that bothered him, without a doubt, especially considering the recent alarming events of their exam. But for as much as he wanted to get to the bottom of it, he knew he couldn’t, at least not right now. There was still so much work to be done in rescuing Aqua from the Dark World, a task so important and monumental for the sake of uniting the seven lights and stopping Xehanort, that it required his wholehearted focus and attention.  Worrying about Sora, while always something of a natural constant in the back of Riku’s mind, would just have to wait.

Still, even Riku had no idea of just how much he’d end up having to worry about when it came to Sora later on down the line. And if he had… then perhaps he would have thought twice about leaving on just a single, simple, unsatisfying goodbye.

Chapter Text

You’re only everything I’ve ever dreamed
Ever dreamed of, ever dreamed of

For as long as she had been able to remember, whatever life Kairi might have led prior to her arrival at the Destiny Islands had been a complete and utter mystery to her. It was as though her memories of her birthplace, the first few years of her life in general, had been washed away by the very same tide that had landed her on the island’s shore in the first place. At the time, the only piece of fleeting knowledge the girl had carried with her was her own name. And for the longest time, the absence of those essential memories, of a home, a family, friends, anything else she might have once known, had created a deep, almost aching emptiness within her heart. An emptiness that, in time, had been filled by new memories from the new life she had come to lead. By the sound of the surf washing up onto the sand, by the way the pale glow of the moon would illuminate the small, peaceful village at night, by the seagulls and sand crabs and paopu fruit hanging from the lofty palm trees. By the mayor and his family, who had kindly, warmly taken her in and raised her as their own. By Selphie, Tidus, and Wakka. By Riku and perhaps most of all, by Sora.

And yet… the moment Kairi stepped foot into the rising city known as Radiant Garden, she knew. This was exactly where she had come from.

The spark of familiarity that had burst inside her heart upon even so much as a glance at the city’s famous central plaza was undeniable. Though the memories of her childhood here were still distant shadows locked away in the back of her mind, Kairi was confident that she had walked these cobblestone streets before. She had a connection to this place, to her home, her real home, and the suddenness in realizing that connection was more than enough to rattle her to her core. She let out a shallow breath, her eyes wide as she pressed up against one of the courtyard’s shorter walls, a hand pressed again her head as she tried to remember something, anything else about her now former home.

And yet… the only memory that stirred was that of a woman’s voice, kind and gentle, followed by a burst of warmth centered around the very same pearl necklace Kairi still wore to this day. “I just cast a magic spell on you,” the woman’s voice said, her image all but indiscernible in Kairi’s practically faded memory. “One day, when you’re in trouble, the light within you will lead you to the light of another. Someone to keep you safe.”

Kairi’s gaze drifted down to the charmed necklace, her fingertips grazing it ever so slightly. She still had no idea who the woman in her memory had been, but she couldn’t help but feel as though her spell had rung true. Because for some reason or another, it had led her away from this place and to the Destiny Islands instead. To Sora and Riku. To someone who had kept her safe.

“Excuse me, are you all ri—oh! Wait… Kairi?! Is that you?”

“Huh?” Kairi blinked out of her thoughts, realizing that she had slid down to sit against the wall. Focusing on the present once again, she noticed a young woman, clad in pink, with long, braided brown hair, her face filled with concern as she knelt down in front of her. A face that, after a moment or two, Kairi quickly recognized from her rather brief stint in Traverse Town well over a year ago now.

“Aerith!” she exclaimed with a surprised smile, not hesitating to embrace the older girl. “It’s great to see you again!”

“Same to you,” Aerith chuckled warmly, returning the hug before extending a hand to help Kairi up. “Look at how much you’ve grown! What brings you here to Radiant Garden?”

“I’m actually here to train to use my Keyblade under Merlin the wizard,” Kairi informed.

“Oh, so you’re the other pupil he mentioned earlier!” Aerith said. “Well, in that case, it’ll be great having you around here for a while.”

“Thanks,” Kairi grinned, glad to know that there would be familiar faces around to help, even in some small way, ground her amidst the uncertainty she was facing in the new regiment she was about to undertake. “Actually, Aerith, could you maybe point me in the right direction to Merlin’s house? I… don’t really know my way around here anymore…”

“Say no more. I’m actually heading there myself,” the older girl turned to head off, beckoning Kairi to follow her. “The other members of the committee will be done their own rounds soon, but we’ll probably still be the first to make it back.”

“Committee?” Kairi asked as she walked alongside Aerith through the calm city streets.

“The Radiant Garden Restoration Committee,” Aerith explained. “For over a year now, we’ve all been working hard to rebuild our home to the way it used to be. There’s still plenty of work to be done, but for now, Leon says we’ve made pretty good progress.”

“What exactly did Radiant Garden need to be restored from?” Kairi wondered, eager to learn more about her former home.

Aerith’s expression saddened at this as she turned her glance over to the castle towering high over the city’s smaller homes and shops. “Several years ago, this world was overrun by Maleficent and her endless army of Heartless.”

“Maleficent?” Kairi interjected, familiar with the dark fairy’s name. “Isn’t she that witch who captured me and the other princesses?”

Aerith nodded gravely. “She came here completely without warning. We fought to protect the town the best we could but… it wasn’t enough. She took over, and Leon, Yuffie, Cid, and I were some of the only survivors that made it out alive. It wasn’t until Sora and his friends defeated Maleficent that we were able to take our home back and start rebuilding it.”

“Oh,” was all Kairi said, even though her thoughts were practically exploding upon hearing all this. She wasn’t positive, but she had a strong suspicion that Maleficent’s conquest of Radiant Garden had been the event that had somehow caused her to be cast out of her former home in the first place. She didn’t know how exactly, or why her memories would have been stripped away from her when Aerith’s seemed to be completely intact, but it made sense, given that it had been enough to drive most of the city’s other residents out. Still, that didn’t explain how she had ended up in the Destiny Islands in the first place, but she supposed that was a question for another time.

For now, their brief travel through the city had come to an end as they reached a seemingly small home tucked away between several others. However, upon venturing inside, Kairi was surprised to see that it was much more spacious than it appeared to be. A large computer mounted the wall on one end of the main room, a round meeting table filling out the center and still leaving ample space for several bookshelves and other collections of various items. She marveled in silent wonder at the almost impossible space as she followed Aerith into it, realizing that aside from the two of them, no one else seemed to be there. Until….

“Ah, Aerith, there you are! First to arrive back, as usual. I trust your patrol went well?”

“Yes, it did, Merlin,” Aerith responded dutifully to the wizard’s seemingly disembodied voice. Confused, Kairi looked all around for any signs of him, though sure enough, Merlin himself soon materialized before them in a burst of colorful magic.

“There, that should do it!” the wizard exclaimed, mostly to himself as he brushed a bit of dust off of his shoulder. “Forgive me for the abrupt appearance, my dear, I was just putting the finishing touches on the training grounds for our soon-to-be Keyblade trainees.”

“Speaking of trainees,” Aerith grinned as she stepped out of the way. “I happened to find one of them while I was out on patrol.”

“Well, what a spot of good luck that was!” Merlin exclaimed excitably as he stepped up to shake his newest pupil’s hand. “You must be Kairi. I’ve been expecting you for quite some time now, though I don’t blame your relative tardiness on you. Yen Sid does have a terrible habit for rambling for far longer than necessary, which I’m sure was exactly what he did before sending you off here.”

Kairi almost laughed at the wizard’s bout of witty humor, though she held it back in favor of maintain the proper respect for her new teacher. “I-I’m very glad to meet you, Master,” she said with a humble bow. “It’s an honor to be training under someone as wise and powerful as yourself.”

“Oh, huff to all that puffery!” Merlin scoffed with a wave of his hand. “You don’t have to be so formal around me, my dear. Just calling me Merlin will suffice.”

“R-right,” Kairi nodded, somewhat embarrassed. “Sorry.”

“Now, now,” the wizard said with a good-natured grin. “I can tell you’re feeling a bit anxious about this undertaking, but fret not. It’s been quite a while since I’ve taken any pupils in under my tutelage, but I can assure that you I am nothing if not a fair and competent teacher. And from what I’ve heard of you thus far, Kairi, I’m sure you’ll be quite a receptive, model student. Why, by the time we’re through, I guarantee you’ll be well on your way to becoming a true, bona-fide Keyblade Master!”

This assurance did the trick in finally setting Kairi at ease. Ever since Yen Sid had tasked her with this training, she couldn’t deny that she had been worried about it for more reasons than one. She had only the barest knowledge of how to use her Keyblade, and even then her skills were minute at best. She was nowhere near the level that either Sora or Riku were on, of that she was certain, and though she wanted to strive to accomplish the strength they both knew, she couldn’t help but fear that she never would. After all, she was already so far behind both of them, weak and under-skilled, a novice through and through. She would certainly have her work cut out for her to even just become competent with her Keyblade alone. But to hear Merlin voice his vote of confidence in her so early on gave her just enough hope to think that maybe starting from the bottom and working her way up to the top might not be so difficult after all.

However, before she could properly thank the wizard for his kind words, Kairi was all too quickly reminded of the other major misgiving she had when it came to her training the moment the door burst open behind her. “Alright, gramps,” Lea trudged into the house, apparently disgruntled as he glared over at Merlin first. “I’ve been looking all over town for that portal you opened up, but I haven’t been able to find it anywhere! What gives? Is this some sort of a secret test or something?”

“No, actually, it wasn’t,” Merlin pointed out patiently. “The errand I sent you on was for the sole purpose of finding and bringing your fellow pupil here.”

“But…” Aerith interjected with something of a wry grin. “It looks like I beat you to it, Lea.”

Lea prepared to fire back a sarcastic retort, though he immediately stopped short the moment he spotted Kairi standing stiffly beside Aerith. “Oh… h-hey, Kairi,” he greeted, his tone quite awkward compared to the cool confidence it usually carried. “L-long time no see, huh?”

Kairi took in a deep breath at this, her lips pressed into a thin line as she kept a cold, scrutinizing gaze on the former assassin. She knew, based on what she had been told, that he wasn’t a Nobody anymore, nor did he carry any further ill will towards her or her friends. But as far as Kairi was concerned, that was all just hearsay. Because when she looked at Lea, she still saw Axel, the man who had kidnapped her, who had dragged her away from her home again, all for the sake of hurting one of her closest friends. And even if all that was said and done and in the past now, Kairi still couldn’t help but harbor some mistrust towards him all the same. “Yeah,” she answered flatly before pulling her sights away from him quite intentionally.

Lea seemed to start at this, almost as if he wanted to say something else to her, though he didn’t get much of a chance to before Merlin intervened. “Well, its good to know the two of you are already acquainted with one another!” he exclaimed brightly, though it was clear he didn’t know exactly how they were acquainted in the first place. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to check over the area I’ve prepared for the two of you to train in one final time. Be back in a jiff!” And with a simple wave of his wand, Merlin disappeared in a puff of magical smoke to do just that.

“And I should probably go out and find Leon and the others,” Aerith remarked as she began to head out herself. “They’re usually back by now, unless they got held up by something. Either way, I’ll see the two of you around!”

Kairi almost spoke out to ask Aerith to stay out of nerves alone, though by the time she decided she didn’t particularly want to be left alone with her former kidnapper, the older girl had already stepped out the door. An uncomfortable silence filled the room almost immediately, with Kairi quickly diverting her attention towards a nearby bookshelf in an attempt at distracting herself away from Lea. She hoped that the next several minutes until Merlin’s return could pass in that silence, but of course, the former assassin couldn’t just leave her well enough alone as she would have preferred.

“So…” Lea began, leaning against the nearby wall as he tried to put on a casual front. ‘H-how ya been?”

“Fine,” Kairi answered tersely, forcing both her expression and her tone to be apathetic and unyielding.

“You feel like you’re up for this whole training thing?”

“Mm hm.”

“You really think that wacky old coot can actually teach us anything when it comes to Keyblades?”

“Yes.”

Lea’s coy smile fell as even his attempt at reaching Kairi through humor fell. In fact, his attempts at striking up an actual conversation in general seemed to be getting him nowhere as she would barely even spare a simple glance over at him. So instead, he decided to go with a route he wasn’t entirely used to taking: being genuine. “Ugh, Kairi, look,” he sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose as he pressed against the wall. “I’ve been thinking about this ever since the old man told me we were gonna be training together, so I might as well just come out and say it: I… I’m sorry.”

Kairi’s frigid manner quickly broke at this, mostly from just how much it surprised her. “W-what?” she asked, finally looking over at him fully.

“I said I’m sorry,” Lea huffed once more, clearly swallowing his pride as he spoke. All the same, his expression was earnest, perhaps even a bit remorseful as he elaborated on his initial apology. “Ya know, for the whole… kidnapping you thing. To be honest, I’ve sorta been sorry about it ever since I did it.”

If you really had been sorry, then you wouldn’t have done it in the first place, Kairi thought rather crossly upon hearing this, though even so, she said nothing as he continued.

“But since I can’t really undo any of it now,” Lea frowned, scratching the back of his neck as he looked down. “I want you to know that… well, I regret a lot of things that I’ve done in the past. And what I did to you is pretty close to the top of that long list of regrets.” He paused for a beat as he crossed his arms, still clearly not satisfied, even despite his sincerity. “Just figured I’d lay all that out on the table before we really get the ball rolling here. So… are we good?”

Of course, Kairi didn’t answer this right away as she continued staring at the former assassin, trying to wrap her head around everything he had just said. In her few brief past encounters with Lea—or rather, Axel, at the time—she had only ever seen him act callous and arrogant and cunning, a personality befitting one of Organization XIII’s cold-hearted cronies. And yet here he was now, standing before her showing guilt, remorse, honesty—things that, even despite her still-lingering uneasiness, Kairi didn’t doubt was genuine. Yet even so, she still didn’t know if she had it in her heart to forgive him, especially when she remembered exactly why he had kidnapped her in the first place. The fear and danger he had brought to her was one thing; but the fact that all of it had happened simply out of Axel’s malicious attempt to use her to get to Sora, to hurt Sora, was what Kairi just couldn’t look past after just a few mere words of supposedly earnest regret.

And she was more than prepared to tell him exactly that too, with all of the honest, pent-up frustration and anger she had to give. Or at least she would have had not both of them suddenly disappeared into thin air entirely without warning.

Fortunately, they reappeared just as quickly, though when they did, they found themselves in what felt like a different world from the wizard’s house entirely. The pair now stood within a vast, dense forest, with large, lush trees stretching out for as far as the eye could see, their wide branches reaching up towards a cloud-speckled blue sky. The entire wood was drenched in silence, no birds singing or crickets chirping as only the gentlest of breezes rustled the leaves of the trees. It was quite a beautiful place, though all the same, something about it felt strange, ethereal almost, and their abrupt arrival was more than enough to leave both Lea and Kairi in utter confusion as to how they got there in the first place.

“What in the worlds…?” the former assassin muttered incredulously as he looked around.

“Where are we?” Kairi wondered aloud, though her question didn’t hang on the empty air for too long before receiving an answer.

“A marvelous question, my dear!” Merlin’s voice suddenly broke through the otherwise quiet wood. The wizard himself was nowhere to be found, something that only bewildered his two new pupils even more as he began to explain. “Behold! Your very own training grounds, created by yours truly, of course. In this magical realm, time stands completely still, which means that you’ll both be able to hone your skills and abilities with almost no time at all passing in reality itself. Its quite brilliant, don’t you agree?”

“So what, we’re just supposed to hang out here, knocking our Keyblades against a bunch of trees until you decide we’re pros at it, gramps?” Lea asked, flashing a sardonic smirk as he called back to the unseen wizard.

“I’d watch that sharp tongue of yours if I were you, my boy,” Merlin said, clearly disgruntled by the former assassin’s playful teasing. “You’d be much better off saving that cutting wit for the battlefield instead. Let that be your first lesson.”

“Excuse me, Merlin,” Kairi cut in, much more politely. “But I’m afraid I don’t really understand either. Exactly what do you want us to do here?”

“Why, I figured that would be quite obvious,” Merlin remarked. “A training grounds is for the purpose of training, is it not? So here, you’ll both have ample time and space to do just that. In fact… I see no reason to not give the two of you a… running start, so to speak…”

The pair exchanged a somewhat worried glance as the wizard’s tone turned rather ominous. They immediately realized what he had meant, however, when out of nowhere, a sizable horde of shadows sprung up from the ground, surrounding them both instantly.

“Heartless!” Kairi gasped, startled as she took a frightened step back away from the twitching creatures.

“Mirages of a weaker subset of them, yes,” the wizard mused from wherever he was. “But still, they should prove to be a suitable test for me to gage the level of your current abilities. So, let’s see what tricks both of you have up your sleeves! And remember: I’ll be watching!”

“Greaaat…” Lea deadpanned as the Heartless began to move in. “As if this whole thing couldn’t get any more creepy. But no problem; this is just a little case of pest control.” The former assassin smirked as he called forth his pair of chakrams, sparks already bursting around them in anticipation for the battle ahead.

“Ah, ah, ah!” Before Lea could lash out, however, his usual weapons suddenly disappeared in two puffs of bright smoke almost as soon as Merlin spoke out. “I’m afraid there is a strict policy against using any weapons ASIDE from Keyblades in this realm. After all, that’s what you both are here to learn how to wield in the first place, correct?”

“Ugh… you’ve gotta be kidding me, old man…” Lea groaned, exasperated as he took up a weaponless defensive stance instead.

“Keyblades…” Kairi repeated thoughtfully to herself as she looked between the pair of Heartless inching towards her and her own hand. Slowly, she reached forward, recalling the same movement she’d seen Sora and Riku pull off to summon their own Keyblades many times before. And yet, despite her own attempt at getting her own weapon to materialize, for some odd reason, it just wouldn’t appear.

Lea found he was facing a similar issue, for much like Kairi, he had only ever summoned his own Keyblade once before. The effort and subsequent lack of a response frustrated the former assassin even further, to the point that he ended up simply kicking one of the Heartless that leapt at him first away with his boot. Still, it hardly kept the creatures as bay as they persisted towards the pair, neither of whom really had any sort of means of defending themselves against them with their Keyblades as absent as they were.

“This is stupid!” Lea finally shouted angrily, glaring up at the sky. “How are we supposed to fight these things if both of our Keyblades are no-shows, huh, gramps!?”

Surprisingly, Merlin didn’t offer a response to this, not giving either of them any sort of hints on how to proceed through this perilous exam. So instead, Kairi decided that there was only one immediate option left for them now: running.

“Forget it!” she exclaimed, pushing her way through the horde of shadows to break through their wriggling line. “Just come on!”

Lea didn’t argue as he followed after her, effectively fleeing from the Heartless as they ran deeper into the forest. Of course, the creatures made sure to give chase, diving into the shadows and speeding after them, forcing them to run even faster just to outdo them. Neither of them had the faintest idea as to where they were going, and even if they did, the woods itself seemed to constantly be shifting and changing all around them, disorienting them even more. Eventually, the forest maneuvered itself in such a way that it ended up cutting their escape off, trapping them between a tight thicket of trees on one side, and the encroaching group of Heartless on the other.

“Tch, cornered,” Lea said, scowling the Heartless down as they both cautiously backed away from them as much as they could. “Got anymore brilliant ideas over there?”

“Hey, at least I had an idea!” Kairi countered harshly. “I guess we’re just… gonna have to fight them with our Keyblades!”

“Oh, yeah,” the former assassin scoffed, rolling his eyes as he held his hand out inseriously. “Because summoning a Keyblade out of thin air is just soooo easy and-” Lea cut himself off with a gasp when, completely out of the blue, his fiery Keyblade suddenly flashed into his grip just in the nick of time. “Well, I stand corrected,” he remarked, a brazen grin crossing his features as he poised his weapon to attack. “Now we’re talkin’…”

Without any further hesitation, the former assassin rushed forward, blindly and rather haphazardly swinging his Keyblade at the opposing Heartless. There was little skill or finesse to his movements, but his brute-force attacks still managed to get the job done in downing several of them, though still more came to take their place in the wake of their defeat. All the while, Kairi simply stood by, watching Lea fight with an increasing sense of rising fury. In truth, she found she was angry at several things all at once: at Lea for being able to summon his Keyblade with such ease, at herself for not being able to so much as even call upon hers, at this test as a whole for proving just how of a disadvantage she was at, even compared to the former assassin. And as one of the Heartless managed to skitter past Lea and make its way towards her instead, Kairi found herself unable to contain her anger over just how unfair ever single part of this whole ridiculous situation was any longer.

“Kairi!” Lea exclaimed in alarm as he noticed the shadow rush for her. “Look out!”

The former assassin moved to take out the attacking creature himself, though ultimately, he found he didn’t have to. For in a flash almost too quick to catch, a bright, colorful Keyblade appeared in Kairi’s hands and with one single, swift swing of its radiant edge, the Heartless before he was no more.

“W-whoa…” Lea remarked, genuinely impressed, though Kairi herself didn’t take a moment to revel in her accomplishment. Instead, she continued acting on her frustration, rushing into the fray with Destiny’s Embrace tight in her grip. Despite how mild-mannered she usually seemed, the former assassin couldn’t deny that his fellow pupil had an odd sense of urgency and ferocity in the heat of battle. Things that not only completely caught him by surprise, but instantly forewarned him that, regardless of whatever he may have thought of her before, she was not one to be underestimated.

All the same, both of them were quick to fall into the steady flow of the fight, their stances keeping them back to back as they rounded out what was left of the surrounding Heartless. Overall, they did well to cover each other, though their swings were largely still uncalculated and unskilled, and their maneuvers sloppy to the point that their stamina was quickly drained. But fortunately, just as exhaustion was starting to wear down upon them both, the Heartless finally petered out, marking the end of their first, rather arduous test.

“Well now, I’d call that a wrap!” Merlin announced across the wood as the pair finally paused to catch their breath. “For beginners, I must say that you both preformed admirably, though you certainly have much to learn in the art of the Keyblade. Fortunately for you, that’s what I’m here for! All the same, I’ll give you both a generous pass on your first exam. And might I add that you two make a surprisingly handy team! Training together will do both of you a great deal of good, I can already tell. And with that, I’ll give you both a chance to rest up until our next exercise. For now, feel free to explore this realm, as well as your own abilities, to your heart’s content. I’ll be back to check in on you before you know it!”

“Hey, no rush, gramps!” Lea called back to the wizard, even though he was no longer actively listening in on them. “Especially if you have any plans of sicking more Heartless on us.”

Kairi almost laughed at this, though she was quick to stop herself, instead opting to let her Keyblade disappear as she turned her attention back on the forest instead. It seemed as though stiff silence was about to fall upon the pair again, but this time, Lea was quick to fill it instead.

“H-hey, so… back what I was trying to say before we were so rudely interupted,” he began with a huff, though his manner soon turned serious once more. “I really am sorry about what I did to you. I… I know its probably not gonna be easy for you, but… I hope you can manage to forgive me for it eventually, even if that’s not anytime soon.”

“…You’re right,” Kairi sighed, crossing her arms. “It really won’t be easy for me to forgive you.” Surprise, and what almost looked like genuine dejection washed across Lea’s face, and though Kairi wanted to revel in that, she found she ultimately couldn’t as she continued slowly, sadly. “I’m just… trying to understand how you could do something like that, how you could drag me away from my home and try to use me against my best friend, and then just… turn around and act like none of that means anything anymore just because you say you want to help us! Everybody keeps saying that you’ve changed and that you’re a good person now, but how do I know that?!”

“Because,” Lea interjected, his tone and expression both surprisingly hard. “Maybe you’d understand if you knew why I was willing to go as far as kidnapping you in the first place.”

“…W-what?” Kairi asked, both confused and appalled all at once.

Lea sighed, running a hand through his crimson locks. “I… I wanted to get Roxas back,” he admitted, looking to the ground morosely. “It was all I could think about. I’m pretty sure losing that kid drove me half crazy. Crazy enough to come up with a hairbrained scheme that, if I’m being perfectly honest with myself, probably wouldn’t have even worked. See, Roxas is Sora’s Nobody, so, I thought… I thought that if Sora lost his heart…”

“…I-it would bring Roxas back?” Kairi finished, shuddering at the thought of Sora losing his heart again. Even so, her tone couldn’t help but soften all the same when she heard the sheer longing in Lea’s voice when he spoke about his lost friend. This was a side of the former assassin she had never seen before, one that she found she couldn’t truly be angry with, no matter how much she wanted to be.

Lea nodded, though he shook his head soon after. “It was a dumb plan. The only reason I got you involved was because I knew you’d be more than enough to lure Sora in. But then Isa—I mean, Saïx had to go and stick his nose where it didn’t belong and—everything just got screwed up from there. Though I guess, looking back, the whole thing was pretty screwed up in general, huh?”

“I can’t argue with that…” Kairi frowned, rubbing her arm.

“Wanna know the worst part of it all?” Lea asked, leaning up against a nearby tree as he looked deeper into the forest. “For the longest time, I tried telling myself that what I did was what Roxas would have wanted. Guess it was the only real way I could justify it all to myself. But… knowing what I do now, I don’t think that could be any further from the truth.”

Needless to say that Kairi had no idea how to respond to any of this. She had never really considered any sort of personal motivation behind Axel’s actions before, and until now, she had never cared to. She had always just assumed he had been acting on the orders of the twisted Organization he had been a part of. But now that she knew that it hadn’t been for them, but for Roxas instead, it was as though her entire perspective on the former assassin had shifted. Kairi still wasn’t sure if she was willing to go as far as to excuse his slights against either herself or Sora, but she was willing to admit something that she hadn’t before. That perhaps, in all her close-minded anger, she had only believed that she was being treated unfairly by having to train alongside Lea in the first place, without even realizing that she had been the one to treat him unfairly all the while.

“Ax—Lea,” Kairi quickly corrected herself, her tone even and sincere as she addressed him. “To be honest, I… I’m still not sure if I’m ready to forgive you just yet.”

“Hey, no worries,” Lea said with an amiable wave of his hand. “I get it. Take all the time you need.”

Kairi couldn’t hold back a small sigh at this. He really was quite hard to dislike, though not even for a lack of trying. “Thank you,” she nodded earnestly. “Still, just because I’m not forgiving you yet, doesn’t mean that I’m not willing to meet you halfway. Which means… I’m willing to be part of the ‘handy team’ that Merlin said we make,” she extended a hand out towards him, offering him a small, if not reserved smile. “That is, if you’re up for it.”

“One thing you should know about me,” Lea grinned, genuinely glad this time as he met her hand in a solid, solidifying shake. “Is that I’m up for anything. Got it memorized?”

“Yeah,” Kairi chuckled, amused. “I do.”

The former assassin’s smile widened at this, though it quickly faded out as their handshake ended and he looked down to her again. An odd sense of concentration filled his expression as he stared at her in scrutinizing silence, almost as if he was searching for something he had lost. Admittedly, his tight focus on her made Kairi somewhat uncomfortable, which was why she didn’t hesitate to speak up and address it just when it felt as though he had been staring for too long.

“Um, Lea?” she asked, tilting her head in confusion. “What are you looking at?”

“H-huh?” Lea blinked, shaking his head as if to clear it. “Uh, i-its nothing. I just… I could have sworn I saw…” he trailed off, his brow furrowing in thought before he shook his head once more. “Never mind. I think I was just trying to remember something I forgot.”

“Oh?” Kairi implored, somewhat curious. “Like what?”

Lea frowned, genuinely perplexed as he glanced back over at her again. “Don’t know,” he said truthfully. There was a hint of what sounded like sadness in his tone, though he was quick to replace it with his usual casual manner as he began walking on ahead into the woods. “I’m sure it’ll come back to me sooner or later, though. For now…” he grinned wryly as he glanced back over his shoulder at her. “The old man said this whole place was basically ours to explore. You feel like taking him up on that offer?”

“One thing you should know about me,” Kairi quipped, essentially mimicking the former assassin with a playful smirk to match his own. “Is that I’m also up for anything.”

“I’ll make sure to get that memorized then,” Lea laughed as he began leading the way onward. Kairi couldn’t help but chuckle herself as she followed after him, realizing that she was much more at ease than she had been in quite some time. When she really thought about it, it was less what the former assassin himself had said that had led them to the relatively stable place they were in now, though that had been part of it. Instead, Kairi quickly realized, what had brought about the newfound fledgling camaraderie between them had been her deciding to let go of her own resentment and anger, perhaps not entirely, but enough to make peace between the two of them. It was a humbling thought to say the least, to make some sort of amends with her now-repentant kidnapper. But for the sake of their important training, and perhaps even her own peace of mind, it was a necessary sacrifice to make, for now at least.

All the same, the thought of just how strange, perhaps even impossible it was that she was now working alongside someone like Lea, who had chased her, captured her, effectively caged her, had all but drifted to the back of Kairi’s mind as she easily walked alongside him through the woods. What thoughts filled her mind instead, was the possibility that perhaps someday, with enough time and enough effort, the former assassin might actually be able to prove to her that he deserved her genuine forgiveness. They were still quite a ways off from being anything close to actual friends, but still, there was one thing Kairi couldn’t deny when she considered Lea’s earnest attempts at apologizing and setting things right:

It was a start. A small start, but a meaningful one all the same. One that she would make sure, above all else, to get memorized.

Chapter Text

Taste, what a bittersweet, 
All my, all my life

Sora stared down at the small, yet surprisingly complex device—properly known as a Gummiphone—he held in his hand, his thoughts filled with all of the many points that had been brought up in the call that had just come to an end. The discovery of the Gummiphone itself, which had been packed away into the new set of clothes the Keybearer was now wearing, had effectively been the gateway to a whole host of pertinent information for the otherwise momentarily directionless trio.

First was the introduction to the phone from Chip and Dale, with the pair of engineers detailing its various functions and features that would no doubt make it a very useful tool in the trio’s upcoming search for the thirteen Keys. From there, however, the call had been intercepted by Ienzo, an apparent former member of Organization XIII who had then gone by the name of Zexion. Neither Sora, Donald, nor Goofy recognized him, despite Ienzo’s claims of them meeting once before. Still, the researcher had made sure to assure them that, regardless of his former ties to the Organization, he, and the few other former members working alongside him, wished to offer whatever help they could to their side instead now. Naturally, the trio was somewhat suspicious, maybe even a bit distrustful of their motives. But if someone like Axel could turn away from the Organization and try to set their past wrongs right by aiding the cause of light, who was to say that Ienzo and his friends couldn’t as well?

Furthermore, the information and research Ienzo had provided them with was quite intriguing indeed. It was a revelation that Sora had largely already known: the idea that his heart wasn’t entirely his own. After all, he was already fully aware that Roxas, or at least whatever remained of him, resided far within its depths and that he had for quite some time now. But even so, the reminder of this fact had sent the Keybearer’s mind reeling with a myriad of thoughts and feelings concerning his Nobody. His Nobody, whom he had never really gotten a chance to know or befriend, but had always wanted to. His Nobody, who, by all accounts, couldn’t even exist as his own person so long as their hearts were tied and tethered together as tightly as they currently were.

And it was those thoughts that lingered the most persistently in Sora’s head even after the call concluded and Donald and Goofy still remained by his side in the immediate aftermath of it. Only a small beat of silence permeated the Gummi Ship’s cockpit as the phone’s screen turned black, though Sora was quick to fill it as he voiced his newfound devout resolve to his companions. “I have to find a way to help Roxas,” he said, not glancing up as he spoke much more sternly than he usually did. “The others are following Aqua’s heart, so I’ll follow Roxas’ heart!”

“Well, gawrsh, Sora, ya know we’re up for anything ya wanna do,” Goofy said with a small, if not somewhat befuddled smile. “But aren’t we supposed’ta be lookin’ for them Keys?”

“We can look for them on the way!” Sora insisted brightly and he meant it. After all, looking for the Keys was their primary mission, and an incredibly important one for the sake and safety of practically every world in existence. But for Sora, saving his lost Nobody, figuring out a way to let Roxas be every bit as real and alive as he was, was almost every bit as important as claiming each and every one of the thirteen Keys was. “What do you guys say?”

“You heard Goofy,” Donald concluded with a knowing smirk. “We’re with you for anything you wanna do!”

“That’s right,” Goofy agreed as Jiminy also readily nodded from his spot on the armrest of Sora’s seat. “Trust the guidance that your heart gives ya, Sora. That’s what Master Yen Sid said.”

“So, where to?” Donald asked, eager.


 

Sora briefly smiled between his companions, more than happy to know that he had their support on this endeavor. And while he wasn’t entirely sure, he liked to believe that Roxas would also be quite thankful for their help too. “Oh, that’s easy!” he grinned, standing as he swiftly summoned his Keyblade and aimed it towards the vast expanse of stars before them. It was as if he could feel Roxas’ heart stirring within his own, telling him exactly where he wanted and needed to go. And Sora knew beyond any doubts that he owed it to his Nobody to follow that call to wherever it might lead. “To Twilight Town!”

The top clock tower provided the very best view of Twilight Town by far. The structure rose so high above the sunset soaked city streets and buildings that it gave a perfect prospective of just above everything below it. Which was why it was no wonder that the group had long since singled that lofty perch out as their favorite spot to unwind and relax at the end of their usual lazy, carefree summer days. This particular evening was one such example, likely one of the last chances they’d get to come up here as the summer vacation was soon set to come to its expected end.

Hayner, Pence, Olette, and Roxas all swung their legs out over the edge of the tower as they sat and enjoyed their sea salt ice cream, all four of them trying to ignore the unanimous sense of disappointment their shared in their missed trip to the beach. Even so, the evening was warm and peaceful and quiet, enough to set all of them at ease. Well, most of them.

Roxas was the only one of the group who hadn’t touched his ice cream since they’d climbed to the top of the tower. He usually enjoyed the sweet yet salty treat immensely but today his thoughts were elsewhere, awash in worry and confusion over the strange, practically unexplainable events of the past few days alone. The bizarre white creatures, the hooded thief who had made off with their hard-earned beach munny, his persistent dreams of that brown-haired boy he didn’t know but who seemed so very familiar; all of these things just had to be connected. But as to how, Roxas hadn’t the faintest idea.

“It’s melting.” Olette’s voice broke him out of his swirling thoughts. Sure enough, his ice cream was dripping, though he hardly cared as he glanced over at his friends, seeing that they were enjoying their own treats in peaceful silence. As if they believed nothing in the world was wrong at all when something clearly was.

“…Sorry…” Roxas muttered, still rather guilty that he had ended up ruining their long-sought after day at the beach.

“Cheer up already!” Hayner urged in his usual blunt way.

“That was definitely weird though…” Pence noted, referring to the thief none of them had seen save for Roxas.

“Strange…” Olette agreed with a nod.

“You said it,” Roxas sighed absently as he looked out at the impressive expanse before him. He closed his eyes for a moment, finally taking a bite out of his ice cream. It had indeed started to melt a little, but it was still just as delicious as it ever was, even if the flavor almost seemed bittersweet in a way that he couldn’t quite place.

“Its been awhile since we’ve all hung out like this, huh?” he asked with something of a small, sad smile.

“Well, we’ve all had our share of drama lately,” Axel shrugged, narrowly skirting around what all three of them were surely thinking. “By the way, I just remembered,” her turned slightly towards the pair sitting alongside him. “Did you know you should be checking your ice cream sticks?”

“Really?” ____ asked, leaning forward slightly.

“Yeah,” Axel glanced down at his own half-eaten bar. “Once you finish your ice cream, see if the stick says WINNER.” He took another bite of his own treat, only to find a blank stick below it. “…Not that I’ve ever seen one myself.”

“So… what happens if you win?” Roxas asked, curious.

“I’ll tell ya… that’s… a good question.”

“What, you don’t know?”

“Well, its gotta be something nifty if you’re a WINNER, right?”

“Hm… I guess…”

Hearing the amusing banter between the pair was easily enough to elicit a light, fond chuckle out of ____, who soon broke into the conversation as she glanced out towards the sinking sun before them. “Wow…” she said, aptly amazed by the view. “The sun’s beautiful today…” Roxas and Axel joined her in admiring the bright, yet fading glow, a sense of contentment mingled with hints of longing settling upon all three of them as they took it in. “I’ve seen a lot of sunsets, but today’s puts them all to shame,” ____ noted warmly, yet sadly, almost as if she knew something the other two didn’t. Which, as they’d eventually come to find out, she most certainly did. “If only things could stay like this forever…”

“Say…” Roxas spoke up, filled with a sudden, impulsive idea inspired by what ____ had just said. “What if we all just… took off?”

“What?” ____ asked, confused as Axel also raised an eyebrow at him.

“If we ran, I bet we could always be together,” Roxas smiled, hoping that such a plan could somehow work, as lofty and impossible as it might have seemed.

“But… we have nowhere to run…” ____ shook her head.

“…Yeah…” Roxas sighed, realizing that such a dream was far too good to ever really be true. “I guess you’re right…”

“What’s important isn’t that we hang out with each other every day,” Axel interjected, his expression unreadable as he stared out at the sunset.

“As long as we keep each other in our thoughts, we’ll never be apart, right?” ____  finished, her tone sweet and hopeful. “We’ve got it memorized, Axel.”  

“Good,” Axel nodded, finally smiling, if only slightly.

“I’ll have these moments memorized for a long time…” ____ said softly, almost to herself. “Forever…”

“Me too,” Roxas agreed, as if it was a vow to both of his best friends. A vow to hold onto all of the warmth and happiness these simple moments they shared together contained for as long as he possibly could and perhaps even after that. “Forever…”

“Hey, Roxas?”

“Roxas?”

“Ro_as?”

“Sora?

“Sora!”

“Huh?” Sora flinched, blinking rapidly as he snapped back into the present at Donald’s impatient call. Slightly disoriented, the Keybearer glanced back towards the clock tower, remembering that they had just arrived in Twilight Town, though he couldn’t really recall much immediately after that. That is, save for the coupled memories he had just somehow seen.

“You’ve been starin’ up at the tower for an awfully long time now…” Goofy noted with clear concern. “Did ya see somethin’ up there?”

“W-well, yeah! I saw-” Sora stopped short as he finally looked away from the tower only to glance down at his own hands instead. And when he did, he was quite shocked to find they were clad in a pair of familiar black gloves, his arms covered by the telltale long sleeves of a dark Organization cloak. He nearly started at this until he happened to catch sight of his reflection in one of the nearby shop windows, only to find that it wasn’t his reflection at all.

It was Roxas’.

“Sora?” Goofy stepped in front of his view of the window, still clearly worried as Donald shared his concern. “Are you ok?”

Sora didn’t answer right away, instead holding his hand up once again only to find that it was his once more. His reflection, however, still wasn’t, as he briefly leaned over to look past Goofy to look at it, only to find Roxas still staring back at him instead of himself.

“Y-yeah…” the Keybearer breathed, somewhat unsteady as he shook his head and took a small step back. He gasped, startled as he backed into another building, still seeing Roxas reflecting in the glass in place of himself, mirroring every bit of confusion he currently felt. “I… I’m fine,” he lied, knowing that this wasn’t fine, that something was wrong, that he had no idea what was happening to him or why or how to make it all stop or—

“You don’t look fine,” Donald spoke up, sending Sora a rather suspicious look. And indeed, he didn’t as his usually tanned skin had paled considerably, his forehead covered in a thin sheen of noticeable sweat as he pressed up against the side of side of the building, breathing heavily all the while. Rare was it for either Donald or Goofy to see Sora in such a rattled, shaken, almost frightened state, especially in a moment of relative calm such as this, but whatever the reasoning behind it was, it was clear he had no intentions of revealing it.

“W-well, I am fine,” he insisted as firmly as he could, even if his voice still wavered as he said it. “I’m fine,” he said again, trying to convince himself this time as he properly stood, refusing to so much as glance at any reflective surface as he tried his best to press on ahead.

Of course, neither Donald nor Goofy were entirely convinced, but they both knew better than to press Sora any further on something like this. And sure enough, for the most part he seemed to be bouncing back just fine from whatever had happened to him as he led the way down market street towards the tram common, with the pair soon deciding to join in step behind him.

“Gawrsh,” Goofy said in a somewhat haphazard attempt at changing the subject. “You know, we forgot to fill Master Yen Sid on everything else that happened in Olympus. Should we go back?”

“What, you mean about Maleficent and Xigbar?” Sora asked, more than glad to discuss something, anything else.

And about what really happened when those Heartless attacked at the temple!” Donald huffed, sending the Keybearer a critical glare. “Which we were about to tell him until you stopped us and made us lie to him about it!”

“It wasn’t a lie!” Sora retorted, though he was quick to recant as the magician’s disapproving scowl deepened. “O-ok, maybe it sort of was. But that doesn’t matter! What happened back there really isn’t as big of a deal as you guys like to think it is.”

“Well, shucks, call me crazy, but you nearly losin’ yourself to darkness does kinda seem like a big deal to us, Sora…” Goofy frowned, his tone nowhere near as harsh as Donald’s, though there was still a sense of admonishment to it.

“I-it was an accident, ok?!” Sora said rather defensively. “And neither of you have anything else to worry about because I’m not going to let it happen again. Which is why we don’t have to tell Master Yen Sid o-or Riku, or anyone else about it, ok? Heck, same goes for all the other stuff that happened in Olympus. The others already have enough on their plates as it is. Why go stressing them out? The three of us know how to handle a couple of old adversaries, right?”

“Hm… yeah, I guess…” Donald hesitantly agreed.

“But doesn’t that thing Pete said bother ya?” Goofy asked thoughtfully.

“About the black box?” the magician chimed in.

“Come on, we’re talking about Pete here,” Sora deadpanned, casually hanging his hands behind his head. “That means its probably no big deal.”

“I don’t know…” Donald said, still clearly apprehensive. “Maybe we should-”

“Oh cool!” Sora suddenly interupted as the trio stepped into the town’s open market, with the usual trolley slowly making its rounds throughout it. “The trams are still here!”

“Sora, it hasn’t been that long since the last time we were here,” the magician pointed out as the Keybearer excitedly ran on ahead a bit.

“Well, it feels like it has,” Sora noted, glancing back at his companions.

“Maybe you’re feelin’ what Roxas feels ‘cause he misses home,” Goofy suggested.

Sora stilled at this, instantly realizing that this could not only easily be true, but could possibly explain the strange sights and feelings he had been experiencing ever since they arrived in Twilight Town. Briefly, he looked down towards a small puddle of water on the ground beside him, and as he caught another glimpse of Roxas’ reflection in place of his own, his heart suddenly ached with what was undeniably a pang of genuine homesickness. With a desire to be a part of the world that was filled with memories he treasured so dearly once more.

“I-I… I saw Roxas in the sleeping worlds, actually…” Sora said to his companions, knowing that this would be much easier to explain to them than what was happening to him now. Largely since he had no idea how to explain any of it himself. “It was like…” he trailed off briefly, fully setting his sights on his Nobody’s reflection and wishing that it was more than just that alone. “It was like I was seeing into his heart for the very first time…” Of course, he omitted the fact that he was practically feeling exactly the same at that very moment as he had during his brief encounter with Roxas in the sleeping worlds. Sad, hopeful, remorseful, and most of all, absolutely overwhelmed by memories and feelings that he knew weren’t his own, but he still knew were precious and important all the same.

He had seen Roxas’ memories then and he was seeing them now. Perhaps being in a place like Twilight Town, where Roxas had spent so much time and had so many connections to, was stirring them up within his heart or perhaps it was something else altogether, but all the same, Sora knew that was the best explanation he could think of. On one hand, it was a reassuring sign, one that could possibly lead them to some sort of clues on how to help Roxas, the very thing they had come here to do. But on the other hand, Sora couldn’t deny that it all still unnerved him. In a way, it felt like he was walking around in someone else’s shoes, even if they were still very much his own. Each and every glance he saw of Roxas’ reflection filling in place of where his own should be was like a grim, urgent, almost painful reminder that his heart wasn’t entirely his own, that Roxas was still trapped inside of it, that he needed to find a way to save him and why hadn’t he saved him yet, why was it taking so long, why was Roxas apparently not allowed to be his own person when Sora was and why had this not bothered him this much until now?

Sora took in a tight, shuddering breath in an attempt to silence this racing, almost frantic train of thought as he placed a hand against both his head and his heart. He quickly turned around to face his companions, throwing on a quick, fake smile to set them at ease as he voiced an innocent enough assumption. “So… if Roxas feels something, then that means we must be in the right place.” Donald and Goofy nodded their solid agreement with this theory, helping to set Sora at ease, even as he looked down at his Nobody’s reflection once again. “Don’t worry, Roxas,” he said, hoping to assure not only Roxas (if he could even hear him at all), but himself as well. “I’m gonna find you. I promise.”

“Do you seek our liege?”

That voice, unidentifiable, yet undeniable as it was, reverberated through his entire body, its stark familiarity resonated deeply at his core. Sora gasped, stumbling back as if the voice itself had physically struck him. Which honestly wouldn’t have been that surprising considering all of the other oddities he had been experiencing lately.

“What is it?” Donald asked, noticing Sora’s sudden shock just as much as Goofy had.

The Keybearer had only just managed to open his mouth to answer before an all-too familiar clamor filled the air behind him, heralding the arrival of a group of unmistakably dangerous creatures. “Nobodies!” Goofy exclaimed warningly as him and Donald quickly called upon their respective weapons. Likewise, Sora spun around to see a sizable horde of writhing, wriggling Dusks materialize out of the darkness as they so often did. And despite the fact that he was still rather disoriented and on edge as a whole, it didn’t take long for Sora to summon the Kingdom Key and fall in step in battle alongside his companions.

Dusks were a common, predictable type of foe, one that the trio was more than accustomed to dealing with by now. Which was why it fortunately didn’t take them too long to cut their way through the swath of Nobodies with few problems. All the same, throughout the fight, Sora couldn’t shake the feeling that something was off even more than he had originally thought, a feeling that he finally voiced almost as soon as the very last Dusk had been vanquished.

“What was that voice…?” he wondered largely to himself as the trio took a quick breather after the skirmish was through. “I know I heard it…”

“A voice?” Donald exchanged a confused glance with Goofy. “I didn’t hear any voice.”

“You sure it wasn’t the wind?” the captain asked with a fretful frown. “Or somethin’ else?”

“I’m… pretty sure…” Sora trailed off, quickly realizing that he wasn’t actually sure. In fact, he really hadn’t been sure of anything at all since they arrived here. But the one thing that he was certain of was that Roxas’ heart, however hidden away inside his own as it might have been, was indeed reacting to being back in Twilight Town. It was as if Roxas himself was showing him his faded memories, signaling him with his constant yet distant reflections, sending him a message that he regrettably, frustratingly, had no idea how to interpret. “What are you trying to tell me…?” Sora whispered so quietly that his concerned companions could barely hear him as he looked towards a nearby window bearing his reflection. Or rather, for Sora at least, Roxas’ reflection, which of course, only mimicked his own words right back at him, providing no answers, no clues, nothing.

Aptly bewildered and easily worried by the Keybearer’s odd behavior as they were, Donald and Goofy were more than poised to ask him about it. However, before they had a chance to, another peril was beginning to course its way through the market, with a familiar young trio trying their best to outrun its dangerous onslaught.

“Where’d they come from!?” Hayner shouted, leading the way as Pence and Olette trailed right behind him.

“L-let’s get the ice cream later!” Olette cried, narrowly dodging the attacking shadows trying to nip at her heels.

“What?” Pence shouted, trying to hear over the noisy din of the screeching creatures. “Hold up!”

Sure enough, the trio soon rounded the nearby corner, finally coming into Sora, Donald, and Goofy’s view as they fearfully fled from an unseen threat. “Hey! Hayner, Pence, Olette!” Sora called out to the trio in bright greeting, quite glad to see them. However, his excitement was quickly vanquished as soon as he spotted what they were running from: a thick swarm of Heartless, shadows darting through the thin streets and corridors by the hundreds, clustered together by sheer darkness alone.

“W-what is that?!” Goofy exclaimed, alarmed by such a terrifying congregation of monsters.

Likewise, the Twilight Town trio was equally horrified, though their dread was set to ease almost instantly as they happened to spot the group already prepping themselves for battle against the Heartless. “Heeey! Sora!” Hayner shouted, waving frantically to the Keybearer and not even bothering to stop as they all hurriedly rushed past him. “Hello! And Goodbye!”

“Go!” Sora called out after the group, summoning his Keyblade as they went to seek safety. “We’ve got this!”

Donald and Goofy also called upon their own weapons, all three of them watching with ready anticipation as the horde of Heartless raised itself high above them with the intent of crashing down upon them in full, violent force. Fortunately, the trio had the wits about them to dodge this heavy attack, scattering briefly before reconvening to strike the rampaging group of shadows at any open opportunity. Together, the creatures were certainly a formidable force, but a single strike to their impressive numbers proved effective in taking several of the weaker Heartless that composed them out at once. Working well between Donald’s faced-paced casting and Goofy’s tight wall of defensive blocking, Sora decisively cut straight through the swarm with his Keyblade, essentially cutting the entire force clean in half. With the horde as split as it currently was, the Keybearer and the magician tag-teamed on launching as many fire spells as they possibly could at the two remaining halves of the whole, whittling down the Heartless even more as the captain provided them with ample cover while taking out any lost stragglers. In the process, the struggling shadows got plenty of hits and scratches in against the trio as well, though they were easily ignored in favor of taking the marauding creatures out as quickly as they possibly could. And sure enough, that’s exactly what they did as they powered through and tore their way through the last large swath of Heartless that tried to ram into them, countering its rushing attack with a unified, well-timed strike of their own. Unable to keep itself together any longer, the horde quickly fell apart, the few remaining Heartless deciding to make their hasty retreat back into the shadows, lest they face further obliteration at the hands of Keybearer and his companions.

With the threat of the Heartless finally defeated, the scattered townsfolk quickly returned to the now-safe market, falling back into their usual commerce and business with tentative ease. Likewise, Hayner, Pence, and Olette soon filed out of their hiding spot, though they were all careful to take a close look around to make sure the shadows were truly gone as they properly met up with Sora, Donald, and Goofy.

“Nice fightin’!” Hayner grinned, playfully mimicking the Keybearer’s swings. “Thanks, Sora.”

“Hayner, Pence, Olette! It’s been ages!” Sora exclaimed warmly as he ran up to them.

“What?” Hayner raised an eyebrow. “It hasn’t been that long.”

“Ya see?” Donald pointed out, reminding Sora of what he could hardly forget. That Roxas’ feelings and thoughts were echoing so strongly here. Perhaps even stronger than his own thoughts and feelings were.

“Donald! Goofy! How are you?” Olette greeted the pair with a bright smile.

“Howdy there, Olette,” Goofy grinned back with a wave.

“We’re good,” Donald nodded heartily.

“So if you guys are here,” Pence cut in, curious as ever. “Does that mean weird stuff’s going down again?”

“You kidding, Pence?” Hayner asked, hands on his hips. “When have we ever seen a tornado of shadowy blobs before?! It’s not ‘weird’. Its unprecedented.

“Hm… I guess it is,” Pence mused. “The creatures from the last time were bright white. These things must be new. Man, I can’t wait to get sluthin’ on them!”

“We’re already done with the school project, silly,” Olette interjected with a chuckle before she turned back to Sora. “Whatever’s going on, you wouldn’t be here unless you had a good reason.”

“Which is…?” Hayner asked, expectantly.

“Well, actually,” Sora began, a bit hesitantly, though he had no real idea where that hesitance was coming from. “We’re… looking for Roxas.”

The Twilight Town trio exchanged an intrigued, though ultimately uncertain look. “Roxas?” Olette asked, tilting her head.

“That’s funny…” Hayner said after a moment of thought. “I don’t know any Roxas, but the name sounds familiar.”

“Maybe we bumped into him somewhere,” Pence guessed with a shrug.

“Uh… that’s one way to put it…” Donald noted as him and Goofy exchanged a somewhat pitied frown. Likewise, Sora felt a beat of genuine sadness echo through his heart upon hearing that they didn’t remember him, barely even knew who he was, when he remembered them, recalled every bit of the time they had spent together, however fabricated and falsified as it might have been, as if it been the realest thing in all the worlds. It made sense that they wouldn’t, but even so, the truth of it still stung all the same.

“Actually,” Goofy spoke up, addressing the trio. “Roxas mighta been friends with another version of ya.” At this, the captain pulled a photo out of his pocket, one that they had received quite some time ago, but had made sure to hang onto ever since, and presented it to the group.

“This photograph…” Olette started softly as Hayner took the picture so they could further inspect it.

“Yeah, we’ve got the same one,” Pence agreed, pulling out their own copy of the photo. Sure enough, both images were almost exactly the same, depicting the three of them, posing in front of the gates to the old mansion. Familiar to be sure, though there was one key difference between them. Namely that Roxas was present and smiling right alongside the trio in one, and in the other, he was glaringly absent.

“Oh yeah!” Hayner exclaimed in sudden realization as he looked between both photos. “The other Twilight Town!”

“Its like one of those ‘spot the difference’ puzzles…” Pence noted, also glancing over the images a second time. “Except really easy.”

“I guess in that town, we’re friends with this ‘Roxas’ person,” Olette assumed and Sora had to practically resist the urge to nod insistently when she did.

“Sora, let us help you track Roxas down,” Hayner said as Pence and Olette chipped in their eager agreement.

“R-really?” Sora asked, surprised, but more than glad to hear it.

“Sure,” Hayner nodded as he looked down at the photo once more. “He seems like a pretty cool guy.”

“Yeah, he is,” the Keybearer smiled, his heart warmed in more ways than one by the group’s willingness to help someone they didn’t even really know. And while he wasn’t entirely sure, Sora couldn’t help but also think that Roxas himself was quite grateful for their aid when he caught yet another glimpse of his Nobody’s reflection, only to see it finally smiling back at him.

“Great, then let’s all go ask around town,” Pence suggested, largely since none of them really had any concrete leads so far. “If alternate-us knew Roxas, then maybe alternate-other folks did too.”

“Sora, maybe you three should go to the place in the photo,” Olette added, handing the first picture back over to Goofy. “It’s the old mansion. The three of us will cover places in town while you guys can look for clues over there.”

“Ok!” Sora nodded, more than ready and resolved to start piecing together some way to help Roxas. “Thanks. Oh! By the way, I almost forgot; I got this phone thingy that takes pictures!” He pulled the Gummiphone out of his pocket, remembering that Jiminy had detailed photography as one of its many, many functions, most of which he didn’t quite understand just yet, though fortunately using it to take pictures was an easy enough concept for him to grasp. “Wanna snap a quick photo while we’re all here?”

The others were all quick to hop on board this idea and in no time at all, they had all set up in a collective group pose near one of the market area’s wide brick walls. However, it only took a moment or so of them all holding said pose before Pence pointed out something the rest of them had happened to overlook. “Uh… wait. Who’s taking it?”

Of course, none of them had really considered such a small, yet important fact, so the decision was made just as simply: by drawing straws. The results ultimately landed Donald with the task, though he was rather set off by having to stand out of the photo, even as Goofy volunteered to step out alongside him. Even so, the magician fumbled around with the Gummiphone, grumbling angrily to himself all the while before finally making his frustrations quite known to the group posing before him. “Grr… why do I have to take it!?”

“Hey, tough luck,” Sora shrugged, keeping up his casual pose. “You drew the short straw.”

“It’s ok!” Goofy chuckled, working to diffuse his friend’s anger as he so often did. “I’m sittin’ outta the photo with ya, Donald.”

“Then you take the photograph!” Donald huffed, shoving the Gummiphone into the captain’s hands. Of course, Goofy agreed to do so much more easily than the magician had, even as Donald stomped over to join the others, striking a still-clearly petulant pose as he did.

“Everybody smile! A-hyuck!” Goofy grinned, holding up the phone to snap the photo. Despite the slight bickering beforehand, the actual process of taking the picture was quick and easy, and soon enough, the entire group was gathered around the Gummiphone, admitting the memento together.  

“Wow, that came out great!” Pence exclaimed as Hayner and Olette nodded their satisfied agreement.

“Gawrsh, ya know, it sorta reminds me of the other picture,” Goofy noted, briefly pulling out the photo featuring Roxas and the Twilight Town trio once more. The two photos, while quite different, were certainly comparable on some level, though Sora in particular could not deny the contrasting senses of both connectedness and longing as he looked between them both. Connectedness to the friends standing by his side right here and right now and a longing to be with the friends he was lost to and had lost once again. And strange as it might have been, the Keybearer felt oddly compelled to do something about them both.

“Hey, maybe once we do find Roxas, we could take another picture with all of us, together,” Sora suggested with a small, hopeful smile.

“Oh, yeah! It’ll be like both pictures combined!” Pence chimed in just as eagerly.

“I like the sound of that,” Olette nodded warmly.

“Sounds like a plan,” Hayner agreed. “But if we ever wanna take that picture, we gotta actually get Roxas here in the first place. So for now, we’d better start asking around. You guys start by checking the old mansion. We’ll catch up.”

“Got it,” Sora said, just as resolved as ever to do what he could to help Roxas out. The Twilight Town trio seemed to share that resolve, each of them carrying the same noble mission as they parted ways: to find a way to bring Roxas back to the life he should have had, the life he deserved, no matter what, or where, that way might be.

All throughout their relatively brief trip through Twilight Town, Sora found himself bombarded with even more of Roxas’ memories and emotions at practically every twist and turn along the way. His surprise and shock with the phenomenon had largely worn off by now, to the point that he had come to anticipate it, perhaps even appreciate it as it gave him deeper insight into the life and personality of his Nobody that he had only ever seen brief glimpses of before.

It was for that reason that he paid close attention to the scattered memories that filled the sunset streets, more or less ignoring Donald and Goofy’s casual conversation as he trailed behind them slightly. Sora knew he wanted to save Roxas; that was an understatement if anything. But the chance to get to know him better, even in a rather indirect way like this, then that was something he wasn’t about to pass up. True, it was still rather disconcerting to pass by mirrors and windows and not see his own reflection following alongside him, and he couldn’t deny the spark of unknown fear that ran through him whenever he happened to look down at his attire and catch a peek of Roxas’ black Organization cloak instead of his own new clothes. But for the most part, Sora did his best to ignore all that and focus on Roxas, his memories, and whatever message he might have been trying to communicate to him through them.


 

Passing through the rest of the tram common had allowed him glimpses into warm summer days, odd jobs meant to earn them munny for the beach, heading to the shop to buy ice cream after a long day of hectic missions. Even just passing by the sandlot showed him the Struggle, taking Seifer down a peg to claim the trophy and its gemstones they had all split up to share, Axel showing up to bring him back to the Organization he had willingly, angrily abandoned. But most of all was the clock tower, a place so special, where the three of them always came together at the end of every day to talk, laugh, and sometimes just think. It was where ice cream was enjoyed, sunsets were watched, secrets were shared, feelings hurt and friendships built and repaired. It was where they had always come back to, where they had connected the most. In a way, it almost felt more like home than anywhere else.

In just about every single memory of the clock tower that Roxas had to offer, Sora found that Axel was usually the most prominent face to appear. He had shown him the ‘icing on the cake’, had brought him out of the initial quiet revere of his early existence, had taught him about fun and friendship and all the feelings they’d supposedly never get to know as Nobodies. But just as reoccurring as Axel was in these memories, there was another figure, a girl, he presumed, though her face was always obscured completely by the shadows of her hood. She was also part of the Organization, her and Roxas its youngest, newest members, both of them capable of wielding a Keyblade. But no matter how many times she showed up within those memories, Sora was never, not even once, able to garnish her name. It was if it had been silence, wiped out, the only thing remaining of her being her voice alone, and even that was distant and faded compared to everything else within Roxas’ memories.

Still, every time she appeared, something deep and visceral stirred deep within his heart, in a way that felt decidedly different from the frequent slight pulls he felt from Roxas. Occasionally, he’d catch the briefest of flashes of her, the real her, her bright blue eyes, her raven black hair, her kind, playful smile. But they were all so quick and fleeting that they offered nothing really substantial about who she really was at all. For a moment, he almost thought he saw her standing in place of where he had grown used to seeing Roxas’ reflection instead of his own. But just like seemingly everything else about her, all too quickly she was gone, dimmed, faded.

Forgotten.

The barrage of memories finally started to slow down as the trio began carving out a path towards the mansion through the town’s underground conduit. Apparently, Roxas hadn’t spent too much time down here, or at least that’s what Sora assumed. The usual way to the woods had been sealed up since their last visit here, forcing them to wander through the mazelike sewers to get there. Despite the fact that he halfheartedly joined Goofy in laughing over Donald’s near constant-complaining about the smell, Sora’s mind was just about as far from the present moment as it could have possibly been. Instead, his sights were trained on the water they were walking through, Roxas’ reflection staring back at him through it, and the countless memories he had seen thus far. Admittedly, he was half tempted to tell his companions about what he had been experiencing, even though he knew he was the only one seeing and feeling it all. And ultimately, that exclusivity was exactly why he decided against telling them; after all, if Donald and Goofy were still awash with concern over his recent slip into darkness, then what would they possibly think about something as alarming and inexplicable as this?

Eventually, the trio did manage to make it out of the conduit and into the quiet, open forest that lay just on the other side of Twilight Town’s tall walls. Much like the town itself, the dusk-covered woods were calm and quiet and featured a path that directly to the mansion they were heading for. Like earlier, Donald and Goofy set out ahead first, and though Sora was set to follow them, the moment he took a single step forward into the woods, a new voice entirely suddenly echoed through his thoughts.

“Come…”

Sora briefly stopped at this, caught off guard by the sudden, almost aggressive pull on his heart, one that felt so different from the usual gentle tug he suspected had been coming from Roxas. For a moment, he wondered if this new, rather unwelcome spark of feeling was somehow coming from his Nobody’s scattered memories, until the strange voice itself confirmed that its words didn’t come from Roxas’ past. Instead, they were for him, here and now.

“Sora…” it spoke again, its indiscernible tone barely over a wavering whisper. Yet for as soft and deceptively gentle as it was, its beckoning sound carried an unnaturally commanding sway that, for one reason or another, Sora was completely helpless to resist falling under.

“Come join us…” it called and he did as it said, thoughtlessly following the persistent pull on his heart as it practically dragged him onward.  His hands had fallen slack at his sides as his steps remined slow yet steady, his expression empty and his eyes wide yet dull and unfocused as he stared straight ahead yet saw nothing at all. “Sora…” Each time it spoke his name, its intangible reigns of control seemed to tighten around him more and more, pushing away his own thoughts and feelings and replacing them with nothing but cold, quiet obedience. Everything other than the voice, the pull, and wherever they both were leading him faded away, including his own two companions as they continued on the path ahead, completely unaware that something was gravely wrong with the Keybearer behind them.

“So, do ya really think we’ll find any clues that could help us help Roxas at the mansion?” Goofy asked Donald with casual curiosity.

“Who knows?” the magician shrugged truthfully. After all, their entire stint here in Twilight Town on a whole was based largely on the mere speculation that it could led them to Roxas, though thus far, they’d yet to find anything resembling a concrete solution. “What do you think, Sora?”

The pair briefly glanced over their shoulders at their young ward, though almost as soon as they did, they were quick to stop short. Not only did Sora strangely not give them any sort of reply at all, but his stiff, distant manner was more than enough to garnish immediate concern from them both. “S-Sora?” Donald started, though he received no response as the Keybearer spared neither of them so much as a single glance, instead heeding only the voice and the voice alone.

“Darkness is calling out to your heart, Sora…” it said, its tone smooth and falsely comforting. “You must let it fill you so that you may become the vessel you are meant to be…” Unable to properly act on the voice’s command, Sora instead simply continued following its lead, incapable of doing or thinking anything else, even despite its sinister, ominous message. All the while, Donald and Goofy watched with mutual worry as he finally walked past them, completely lost to whatever trance he seemed to be under.

“Uh… Sora?” Goofy ventured apprehensively, hurrying to walk alongside the Keybearer as Donald did the same. “I-is somethin’ wrong?”

“Why aren’t you saying anything?!” Donald asked, slightly frustrated by Sora’s continued silence, which showed no signs of breaking anytime soon. “Normally we can’t get you to be quiet, but when we want you to talk, you won’t say a word! Figures…”

“Say, come to think of it… you’ve been sorta outta it ever since we got here…” Goofy mused rather fretfully. “I know you said you’re fine, but… are ya sure there isn’t something you’re not tellin’ us about?”

“Cause if there is, you know better than to keep it a secret from us!” Donald exclaimed crossly, though it was clear his scolding came from a place of immense caring. “So… spill it already! And snap out of whatever it is you’re staring at already! It’s creeping me out!”

Despite his companion’s earnest urgings, Sora still didn’t speak a single word, his gaze still fixated straight ahead as he continued walking, slowly as ever, through the woods ahead. Before, Donald and Goofy had only suspected something was off, but now there was no doubt. To confirm their developing worries even more, Goofy tentatively reached a hand out, placing it firmly on Sora’s shoulder in a somewhat meager attempt at halting him, only for the Keybearer to completely ignore the gesture and easily pull right out of his grip. In his continued frustration, Donald was more direct in his approach, grabbing Sora by the hand and planting himself steady in the hopes that would finally be enough to stop him in his tracks. Of course, it wasn’t as the Keybearer simply pulled his otherwise motionless hand away, knocking Donald back onto his tailfeathers and setting him off even more than he already was.

“What’s going on?!” the magician shouted hotly as Goofy hurried to help him up. For a moment, the two continued watching Sora, his back turned to them as he listened only to the voice that seemed to whisper all around him, though it always seemed its loudest and most important when it echoed from within the depths of his own heart.

“You know what it is you must do, Sora…” it assured as softly, deceptively as ever as its tight, almost painful pull practically forced his heart forward. “And if you do not yet, then soon you will. You are the thirteenth, the last, but most important piece of them all…”

“For without you, the Kingdom cannot come…”

Donald and Goofy were just about to make another attempt at breaking through to Sora, though they were immediately halted as a large, varied group of Nobodies materialized among the trees straight ahead of them. A shared startled shout instantly rose from the pair as they summoned their weapons and prepared for the oncoming fray, though they stopped short when they noticed that Sora was making no such effort to do the same. Instead, he merely continued walking, his blank, empty manner still unchanged, even despite the danger he was heading straight towards.

“Sora, look out!” Donald warned, taking the liberty of firing off an ice spell to knock back a Dusk that managed to skirt too close to the Keybearer. Despite this, Sora didn’t so much as even flinch, still not calling upon his Keyblade or making any attempt at all to defend himself, much to Donald and Goofy’s mutual alarm.

“What’s the matter with him?!” the magician exclaimed, gripping his staff tightly as he fended off another Nobody from afar.

“Garwsh, I don’t know, but l-look!” Goofy pointed to the horde of Nobodies just as Sora reached them. For the briefest of moments, it seemed as though the creatures were more than set to attack the defenseless Keybearer, and yet, right before they could all rush towards him at once, they stopped. In fact, they even seemed to slither back, away from Sora as he passed through them, as if he wasn’t even aware of their presence at all.

“T-they’re… not attacking him?” Donald wondered, beyond baffled at this point. Likewise, Goofy was also quite confused, his shield raised as he stepped forward a bit to test if the Nobodies really were standing down for some reason. However, the creatures were quick to snap back into their usual aggressive ways upon turning their attention away from the Keybearer and back towards the captain and the magician. The pair gasped fearfully as the entire horde rushed for them, completely ignoring Sora, who did the same to them as he continued following the still unseen, still unknown pull on his heart all the while.

“Sora, snap out of it already!” Donald shouted past the Nobodies amidst casting spells at them left and right, even though he could already feel his energy draining quickly from the sudden barrage. “We need your help over here!”

“Y-yeah, please!” Goofy essentially pleaded, looking past the Nobodies to the Keybearer as he continued walking away from them silently. “Like we said before, we’re a team! Which means we all gotta stick together, no matter what, Sora!”

Unbeknownst to either of the pair, Sora’s otherwise steady pace finally slowed somewhat upon hearing this pertinent reminder, one that nearly worked in returning some of his lost lucidity before the voice and the pull both worked together to quickly snatch it away from him once more. “Sora, you must come…” it urged with a newfound hint of hostility in its still quiet tone. “Follow the call as it leads you towards the darkness… and then, at long last can your heart truly be set free…”

He scarcely even understood or even really heard whatever disturbing promises the voice was offering him; in fact, the only thing he was allowed to know was that he had to heed its call, no matter where or why it might be leading him. And with each forcibly guided step he took, the further away he got from his endangered companions as they struggled to break past the line of persistent Nobodies before them if only to reach him before it was too late.

“Sora!” Donald shouted desperately as he frantically casted heal after a particularly nasty cut from a Dusk.

“Sora!” Goofy echoed just as tightly, trying his best to ward off the trio of Nobodies pressing hard against his shield.

“Sora!” the voice shouted for the first time, its pull snapping heavily, agonizingly upon his heart with all of its malice, hatred, darkness, trapping him, taking everything away from him and leaving nothing behind at all, until-

“Sora!”

“R-Roxas?!” Sora gasped, finally stopping dead in his tracks upon hearing his Nobody’s unmistakable, strangely warning call from nowhere and everywhere all at once. Instantly, his senses and autonomy rushed back to him in full force, finally allowing him to think and see and feel the unknown, absolute anguish flooding his heart completely out of nowhere. The pain and shock of it was almost enough to send him collapsing to his knees, but instead, he only barely managed to haphazardly summon his Keyblade, digging its tip into the ground so he could lean against it for support. His vision was spinning as he stared at the ground, breathless as he tried to piece together exactly what was happening. And yet, try as he might to recall something more, the only things he could remember from the past several moments alone was a voice that said nothing his memories held onto now and the thankfully fading pain that still lightly pulling against his heart, vying for control it no longer held over him anymore.

Sora was all too quickly broken out of his confused, racing thoughts upon hearing a round of frightened, strained cries behind him. Startled, the Keybearer turned to see Donald and Goofy, still heavily beset by a crowd of Nobodies that showed no signs of thinning out any time soon, despite their best, if not futile efforts to oust them. And even though his chest was still aching from the resounding pain, Sora didn’t hesitate to finally join his companions in the ongoing fray.

Needless to say that both the captain and the magician were more than relieved to see the Keybearer suddenly cut through the wall of Nobodies forcing them back. The Keyblade’s initial swift swing was more than enough to take out several of the Dusks at least, though Sora didn’t stop there as he also cut down several of the outliers of the group. Even amidst the ongoing battle, Donald prepared himself to angrily call Sora out for his earlier unresponsiveness, though Goofy was quick to quell his anger for the time being, allowing their young companion to steadily wipe out the rest of the Nobodies while they took a much-needed breather.

Of course, that didn’t mean that after the fight was over, everything was so easily forgotten. For just as soon as Sora finished dispatching the last Dusk, both Donald and Goofy practically pounced on him with their barrage of countless questions and concerns.

“What happened with you?!” Donald demanded first, stomping his foot down petulantly. “We get attacked and you just walk away?! Are you nuts!?”

“I-I… I didn’t… I wasn’t-” Sora stammered, not knowing how to even explain what had just happened himself.

“Are you ok, Sora?” Goofy asked with much calmer worry, placing a comforting hand on the Keybearer’s shoulder. “Is there somethin’ ya maybe need to tell us about?”

“No. No ‘maybes’,” Donald interjected firmly before Sora could even get a word in edgewise. “There is something you aren’t telling us about and it needs to stop! Something’s been up with you ever since we got here and you need to explain it, right now!”

“I… I don’t know, I-” Sora cut himself off, shaking his head as he reeled to frantically find a comprehendible answer that made any sort of sense. But that was exactly the problem; whatever had just happened to him made no sense whatsoever, and he was especially hard pressed to figure out some way, any way to put it all into words. So instead, he decided to go with a much simpler, much more safer route instead. “I-I’ve been seeing Roxas’ memories!” he exclaimed sharply, his hands clenched in tight fists at his sides as he blurted it out. It was only really half the truth though, since he was fairly certain that whatever trance he had just been trapped in had nothing to do with the deepening connection he had been feeling to his Nobody since they had arrived.

“Whaaaaa?!” Donald and Goofy both asked in instantly intrigued unison upon hearing this.

“What do you mean, ‘seeing his memories’?” the magician asked somewhat suspiciously.

“I mean… I’ve been seeing his memories,” Sora shrugged, unsure of how else to put it. “All over town, I’ve just… its just…” He sighed, somewhat frustrated at how difficult this was to communicate when it was still so strange to him as well. “Its almost like his memories are just… lying around everywhere and they keep coming to me from all over. A-and its not just that! I keep seeing him in my reflection too. I know this all might sound kinda crazy, but… I think he might be trying to tell me something.”

“Golly, like what?” Goofy asked, fascinated by this new development.

“I… don’t know…” Sora admitted, crossing his arms. “B-but whatever it is, I feel like it could help us save Roxas somehow! Or at least I hope it could…” he muttered that last part, not entirely certain of that fact himself. Still, he couldn’t shake the feeling that his Nobody was indeed trying to get some sort of message across to him through his scattered memories. It was figuring out exactly what that message was that was going to be the hard part.

“So is that why you just spaced out on us like that?” Donald asked, still somewhat cross over the matter. “Because you were seeing one of his memories?”

“Y-yes!” Sora exclaimed, largely without thinking. Another lie, yes, but it was much easier than the alternative was: actually trying to figure out the truth behind the dark, whispering voice he’d just as rather forget. “Yes, that’s… exactly what that was.”

“Well, it musta been a pretty important memory if ya were so caught up in it like you were,” Goofy noted. “What was it about?”

“It was about…” Sora began, trying to come up with yet another convenient lie, despite the fact that each one he told to the pair was filling him with more and more pressing guilt. He wasn’t a fan of lying to anything begin with, but to withhold the truth from Donald and Goofy, his two trusted companions and some of his closest friends, was practically unthinkable. Which was why he was half tempted to actually change his tune and tell them the truth in whatever way he could. And yet just shy of him making the choice to do so, he stopped, halted by anxiety or dread or something else altogether, and fronted another quick fabrication instead. “I-it was about Roxas going to the same mansion we’re headed to! W-which means we’re probably on the right track, so we might as well get going there instead of standing around here, right?”

Donald and Goofy exchanged a somewhat dubious glance at this, but ultimately they both seemed to accept it, much to Sora’s mingled relief and guilt. “If you say so…” the magician mused before turning back to the Keybearer, wagging a warning, chastising finger. “But next time something like that starts happening to you, you’d better tell us! You had us worried sick!”

“Yeah, Sora, you don’t have to hide anything from the two of us!” Goofy chimed in warmly. “Specially not somethin’ like this. Even if it sounds like it might be a doozy, you know we’ll always be here to help ya with whatever it might be!”

“Y-yeah…” Sora smiled halfheartedly, rubbing his arm as he looked away from the pair, almost as if he was ashamed to make eye contact with them, which, admittedly, he was. “I know…”

“Now come on!” Donald urged somewhat impatiently as he led on. “Let’s get to that mansion before anything else can go wrong!”

Goofy chuckled his agreement to this as he followed after the magician, Sora falling in line not too far behind them. With the scrutiny of his companions finally off him, the Keybearer took another moment to think back on the disconcerting, if not downright horrifying events that had just unfolded. Indeed, the pain within his heart had mostly subsided, though it still thumped with the constant tug he had felt since arriving in Twilight Town, one that he knew came from Roxas and not from some other unknown, unwanted external force. But whatever had ensnared his heart in that moment had been a far cry from the comforting familiarity of his Nobody. It had been cold, uncaring, unquestionably agonizing as it stilled and silenced every single part of him into obeying whatever it was it had to say, forcefully dragging him towards an unknown fate all the while.

He couldn’t even begin to guess who’s voice it might have been or how it had managed to engulf him in such tight control to begin with, but all the same, it frightened him. To think that this unknown, no doubt malicious force had the power to take such quick and steady sway over his body, his mind, his heart so easily was more than enough to set Sora on edge as he feared losing himself to its demanding pull all over again.

But then he remembered who had been the one to break him out of its hold: Roxas. Sora had no idea how, but his Nobody’s call had been able to do something to set him free, to wake him up from whatever spell he had been put under. Whatever Roxas had done from within the depths of his heart, it had saved him. And that was a favor that Sora wasn’t about to let go unpaid.

And yet for as strong as his resolve to help his Nobody still was, the Keybearer couldn’t help but shudder as his thoughts turned back to that mysterious voice one last time. This time, he focused less on the leeching pull it had forced upon his heart and more on the words it had spoken. He wasn’t able to remember much of them other than its near constant beckoning for him to follow it. But out of every other dimmed, faded, forgotten statement it had said, there was one thing had remained, one claim that still sent his mind practically spinning in confusion and worry each and every time he thought about it and whatever it might possibly mean, if it even meant anything at all:

“For without you, the Kingdom cannot come…”

Chapter Text

Chapter 9: At Dusk

You must be kidding me,
Did you really think
I could say no?

“I wanted to meet you… at least once.”

The myriad of bizarre happenings of the past several days had set out a path that had ultimately led him here. The old mansion was a place that Roxas was only vaguely familiar with from the countless rumors and myths spread around town about it that made it practically infamous. But those things couldn’t have been further from his mind as he stood before it now, awash in growing confusion, dread, perhaps even frustration as he desperately tried to reach out for answers he could never seem to grasp. It was like everything he thought he ever knew was steadily, rapidly crumbling apart at the seams all around him, the foundation he thought he should have been standing on shattering apart piece by piece.

And yet… the turbulent tide he was lost amidst slowly started to calm the moment he caught sight of her. Her simple white dress and slight frame practically blended into the spotless curtains she was standing in front of, a hand pressed against the glass window as she starred down at him silently, sadly from above. In many ways, she was almost like one of the ghosts rumored to be inhabiting the dusty halls of the otherwise abandoned mansion, but he knew better. He knew she was real, at least as real as he was anyway, he had seen her face, heard her voice, felt the connection between them that he couldn’t explain. A connection that couldn’t be broken, no matter what chains of memory came undone.

“Roxas…” she mouthed his name from beyond the glass, or at least she thought it was his. For all he knew, it could have been someone else’s name altogether. And by all accounts, it probably was.

“Naminé…?”

Naminé…

“Thank Naminé…” Sora whispered to himself as he found himself slowly slipping out of yet another one of Roxas’ memories. In a sense, it was like waking up from a distant, yet nostalgic dream, blurring the fine line between memory and reality just as much as his own image tended to blur between himself and his Nobody. Despite the fact that he had largely grown accustomed to this nearly constant flux in and out of a past that wasn’t even his, Sora couldn’t deny that it still felt rather disorienting, perhaps even a bit deceptive. For as he stole another glance up at the window of the stately, yet silent mansion before them, he found that, unlike what Roxas’ memories had shown him, Naminé was—unsurprisingly but still disappointingly—nowhere to be found.

“Did ya say somethin’, Sora?” Goofy asked, glancing back at the Keybearer.

“Hm?” Sora shook his head, finally fully grounding himself back into the present. “Uh… no. I was just… um…” He trailed off, finding himself at an odd loss for words. Something that had been happening more often than usual, he realized.

“Did you see another one of Roxas’ memories?” Donald inferred curiously.

“Y-yeah!” Sora nodded. “Well… at least that’s what it was this time…” he muttered to himself, briefly recalling the ominous voice that had pulled against his heart mere moments ago.

“What do you mean this time?” the magician asked, aptly suspicious as he happened to overhear the Keybearer.

“Oh, uh, nothing!” Sora said, forcing a calm laugh to allay his confused companions before quickly changing the subject back to the mansion before them. “So… what do you think, guys? This place is even creepier than I remember.”

“Well, they do say this mansion is haunted…” Goofy noted as Donald cringed with clear fear at the very thought.

“Haunted, huh…?” Sora repeated, largely to himself as he looked up to the large window once more. He was hardly superstitious in light of everything he’d seen and experienced, but as he thought back to that sinister voice and the frightening affect it had on him, he couldn’t help but wonder if those ghostly rumors maybe held some merit after all.

The already on-edge trio was even more set off the moment something happened to lightly skim the Keybearer’s shoulder from behind. Sora nearly summoned his Keyblade, Donald and Goofy likewise loudly panicking alongside him as they all quickly spun around, only to find an equally startled Hayner, Pence, and Olette standing behind them.

“Yeesh…” Sora huffed, suppressing a sigh of relief at seeing the trio of familiar faces as opposed to the alternative. “Thanks for the heart attack!”

“Oh what?” Hayner smirked. “Did we scare you guys?”

“Not a chance!” Donald retorted back, shaking his first admantly.

“Our bad,” Olette chuckled, aptly amused.

“So, how’d it go?” Sora asked the trio collectively. “Did you get any leads?”

Their otherwise playful manner fell into disappointment at this as they shook their heads truthfully. “Nope, ‘fraid not,” Pence admitted fretfully. “The asking around town thing was a total bust.”

“Yep, looks like this old mansion is our only hope,” Hayner added, looking to the mansion. The others all turned to do the same, each of them carrying the same resolve that the answers they were looking for could be held somewhere inside.

“You guys ready?” Olette asked, eager to continue their search.

“Another Twilight Town awaits!” Pence chimed in boldly.

“Yeah,” Sora readily agreed, already taking the first step towards the mansion. A small burst of warmth filled his heart as he did, one that unmistakably came from Roxas himself. Almost as if he somehow knew just how far they were all willing to go to find a way to bring him back to them. And it was that warmth, that feeling of bright, expanding hope that they both seemed to share, that prompted Sora onward further still, determined to do exactly that.


 

Since the collective group knew exactly where they needed to go, they didn’t waste too much time checking most of the mansion’s otherwise empty, dust-settled rooms. Instead, they all made a beeline for the basement, its clean metallic walls a far cry from the rest of the old mansion’s dilapidated state. Now bereft of its original purpose, the computer room was also just as quiet as the rest of the abandoned building, save for the occasional idle beep and blip from the several-screened machine tucked securely inside it. A machine that, at least as far as any of them knew, was just about their last resort to finding their first and possibly only clues to helping Roxas.

“Here we go!” Pence exclaimed excitedly, rushing to the computer the moment he saw it. Since the others knew full well this was his area of expertise, they all congregated around him as he took charge in operating the rather complex machine. “The password was… uh… ‘sea-salt ice cream’, right?” He tapped the phrase in, which, just as it had before, granted them access to whatever data the computer had stored. “Ok, I’m in. Now let’s get that transporter working…”

Since Pence was already largely familiar with the process, opening up the transporter that would lead the way to the alternate Twilight Town should have been easy. However, what none of them were expecting was for the computer to flash red, emitting a blaring warning alarm almost as soon as the attempt was made. “Oh man…” Pence frowned as the computer’s main screen was overtaken by an error message. “The transporter’s been protected….”

“Protected from what?” Sora asked, aptly confused.

“I guess from us?” Pence ventured a guess. “We can’t use it to get to the other Twilight Town.”

“Why not?” Hayner cut in, clearly annoyed by this sudden roadblocked. “It worked before! We sent Sora there!”

“Well, that was then and this is now,” Pence shrugged.

“And… there’s no other way?” Olette asked, frowning.

“…None that I know of…” Pence admitted, tapping a few more keys on the computer, though to no avail. A general sigh of clear disappointment rose up from several members of the group upon hearing this, all of them quite dejected to know that they had come all this way only to be met with nothing. In fact, they were all just about ready to turn around and head back to town, or at least they would have had the Gummiphone not happened to ring at that exact moment.

Still not entirely familiar with the device, Sora fumbled somewhat as he pulled it out of his pocket and answered it, only for Ienzo to pop up on the other end of the line. “Hello, Sora,” the researcher greeted amicably. “You wouldn’t happen to be standing in front of a computer, would you?”

“Huh?” Sora raised a surprised eyebrow. “Well… yeah. But how’d you know that?”

“I was tinkering with Ansem’s computer,” Ienzo explained. “You know, to decrypt the code that was left in it? And I noticed that someone had logged in from another terminal. I figured it might be you.”

“Oh, yeah! The log terminal!” Sora exclaimed, putting on a front of understanding, which of course, Donald was quick to call him out on.

“You don’t know what he said,” the magician correctly inferred, cross his arms.

“Oh, and what, you do?” the Keybearer retorted in a dry whisper.

All the same, Ienzo happened to overhear this bout of bickering from the other end of the line and let out a small, amused chuckle before posing the group another question. “So if it wasn’t you, then… who did log in?”

“Oh, hi there!” Pence chimed in as Sore handed the phone over to him. “This is Pence. I’m the one who logged into the computer.”

“Good,” Ienzo nodded, allayed. “As long as we know it’s a user that we know we can trust.”

“Yep. But… we’re kind of stuck here,” Pence said, glancing back over at the secured computer. “One of the programs is protected so… I can’t run it.”

“Which program?”

“Ugh! The transporter to the other Twilight Town!” Hayner snapped, frustrated at how slowly the conversation seemed to be going. “It’s the only way to find Roxas. You gotta help us!”

Ienzo seemed quite surprised to hear this news, the implications sending his scientific mind practically reeling as he mulled over it. “Another Twilight Town…? And a ‘transporter’? Okay… a virtual town inside the computer, made of data… Fascinating! Maybe I can do something to help… Pence, let’s get a network set up; that way we can try to look into this on both ends of the spectrum.”

Pence agreed and the two got to work on doing just that, exchanging information in order to connect the two computers together despite the span of worlds standing between them. Despite how well versed both Pence and Ienzo were when it came to the tech they were working with, it still took quite a bit of time to get everything completely set up on both ends. At least an hour had passed with very few updates given, which was why it wasn’t too surprising that in that amount of idle time, Sora had nodded off more than a few times, much to Goofy’s amusement and Donald’s annoyance. Still, it was something of a relief when, after what felt like ages to just about everyone else, Ienzo finally announced that the lengthy process was at last complete.

“Ok, sharing is enabled,” the researcher confirmed, effectively snapping Sora out of his most recent bout of standing slumber.

“Oh! Were you able to fix it?” the Keybearer asked, eager to hear any new developments.

Ienzo didn’t provide a clear cut answer at first as he instead opted to explain exactly what him and Pence had just accomplished. “Now that our two computers have been successfully networked together, I can take control of the terminal there and change the privileges. So in a sense… yes, we did fix it. Or at least allowed some form of progress to continue.”

“And Roxas?” Sora pressed, largely not caring about the specifics so long as it all could help his Nobody in some way.

“Yes. For the virtual world to be completely realized, Ansem the Wise would have included Roxas’ full data in the construction. Meaning, somewhere on your machine, there’s a log of that data that-” Ienzo stopped short, noticing that Sora looked more or less completely lost in all the technicalities on the other end of the line. Which was why he decided to finish explaining in a much more simpler route to grasp. “Uh… basically, we can decipher Ansem’s code more quickly and we can analyze the virtual Twilight Town while we’re at it.”

“Ohhh, ok! Great!” Sora smiled, more or less understanding, though he was still admittedly confused by how it all worked. Still, the researcher’s upbeat tone alone was more than enough to convince him that there was a chance that this could work after all. “I can’t computer so… do that.”

“Glad to know you’re following along,” Ienzo smirked knowingly. “Don’t worry. We’ll handle it. Chip and Dale will be helping me out here on this end. I’ll call you back as soon as we know anything more.”

“Thanks,” Sora nodded, genuinely grateful for the help all around. In a way, he did feel somewhat inadequate when it came to looking for answers in this way, given his relative lack of experience with computers and data and research and the like. But it was still a relief to know that there were so many others who had decided to join him in his cause to help Roxas, from Donald and Goofy, to the Twilight Town trio, to even Ienzo and his crew afar off in Radiant Garden. Certainly, Sora hoped, with so many people working together towards the same goal, there was no doubt that they’d find a way to bring Roxas back in no time at all.

“Oh, before I forget—a bit of troubling news,” Ienzo continued, his tone turning grave. “It’s about one of the Organization’s former members. You knew him as Vexen—but to us, he was Ansem’s apprentice, Even. He was recompleted like the rest of us, but hadn’t regained consciousness yet. Then, sometime after Lea left, Even vanished. Aeleus and Dilan—the two you knew as Lexaeus and Xaldin—went out to look for him, but… he’s just gone. And I’m starting to worry.”

“You think he’s on their side?” Sora asked, remembering Yen Sid’s warning that the Organization would likely be seeking to fill out the rest of their ranks in any way possible.

“I think it’s a real possibility,” Ienzo said earnestly. “He’s a devious researcher. You should be careful.”

“Got it. Thanks again!” Sora bid the researcher farewell as the call came to an end, making sure to keep his warning in mind for future reference.

“Oh no!” Hayner suddenly gasped in apparent alarm as he turned to Pence and Olette frantically. “We got work! I totally forgot!”

“Really?” Pence asked as Hayner already got a head start in hurrying out of the room. “But what about all this?”

“Hey, both are important! We’re gonna need some cash to go to the beach. Also, don’t forget the pretzels. Gotta buy four now,” Hayner grinned, especially as Pence began counting out, confused.

“Ooh, I get it!” he exclaimed in realization, knowing that Hayner had the idea of bringing Roxas along with them. An idea that both Pence and Olette readily agreed with for whenever their long-awaited day at the beach finally did arrive.

“He’s thinking ahead,” Olette chimed in with a wry smile of her own.

“Later, Sora!” Hayner said as he took his leave, Olette going to join him.

“Bye, Donald! Goofy!” she waved to the trio fondly as they all returned the farewell.

“See you guys!” Sora called out after the pair as Donald and Goofy also offered their own goodbyes.

“Oh, and since I’m manning the computer here,” Pence began, remaining in his seat as he glanced back at the duo. “You guys are in charge of earning my share!”

“No pretzel for Pence!” Hayner teased, sticking his tongue out as him and Olette ran out of the room.

“Hey!” Pence shouted after them, ignoring Sora, Donald, and Goofy’s shared amused laughter. All the same, he made sure to assure the trio that he’d continue working on digging up what he could glean from the computer, collaborating in tandem with Ienzo all the while. And with that, the trio was quick to realize there wasn’t really anything else they could do at this stage but wait for any new information to be uncovered that could help further their cause. It was somewhat disappointing, for Sora in particular, to know that there wasn’t much help any of them could provide right now, but at the very least, the effort to help Roxas had been kickstarted. The mission to bring him back into the existence he deserved to have was well on its way. And for now, simply keeping the comforting idea that this could soon be more than just a distance hope in mind would certainly suffice.


 

By the time they left the mansion, Sora had noticed that the usually steady tide of Roxas’ memories flowing in and out of his heart had gradually started to slow to a crawl. Even as they emerged from the derelict building, he found that he was met with essentially none of his Nobody’s memories whatsoever, to the point that even the light pull that had been more or less guiding his heart since they arrived seemed to have completely faded out. And yet, alarmingly enough, what wasn’t gone was the same dull, persistent pain that had sparked in his heart when he had been trapped under the influence of that still-unknown voice. A pain that only seemed to amplify tenfold when the trio was stopped in their tracks by the arrival of a figure they were all too familiar with.

“So, you think you can bring Roxas back?”

Sora practically choked on a gasp, his heart suddenly seizing up with so much sudden agony that it nearly knocked him to his knees. Donald and Goofy noticed his wavering swaying as he clutched at his chest in a weak, yet desperate attempt to stop the swelling pain. Neither of them had the faintest idea as to what could have possibly been afflicting their young companion, but all the same, they were quick to support him on both sides as they all turned to see exactly who was standing right outside the mansion gates behind them.

“Ansem!” the captain and magician exclaimed, largely since Sora was still far too breathless from the pain to do so himself. Yet that pain only seemed to spark once more as a dark corridor opened up right beside the seeker of darkness, making way for yet another one of the Organization’s leading members to arrive.

“Xemnas!” the trio shouted in unison this time, collectively startled and set off upon being met with two of their most dangerous adversaries at the same exact time.

“Roxas should have never existed in the first place,” Xemnas began coldly, cutting right to the chase. “What you seek is impossible.”

Sora jolted at this, filled with a sense of righteous anger at such a dismissive claim overtaking the pain still pounding through his heart. “Y-you’re wrong!” he retorted boldly, forcing himself to stand upright without Donald and Goofy’s help, as much of a struggle as it was for him. “Roxas does exist! His heart’s inside my heart!”

“His is far from the only one,” Ansem said vaguely, ominously even.

“And in the unlikely event that you do manage to separate the two,” Xemnas continued just as evenly. “Where is it you think you can put his heart?”

“W-well… Roxas used to live in the other Twilight Town , right? So, m-maybe… we can…” Sora trailed off, instantly regretting his knee-jerk idea before he could even say it out loud.

“So, you understand the shortcomings of your ‘brilliant’ plan,” Ansem assumed, arms crossed. “The other Twilight Town is just data. Any existence Roxas might have there would ultimately be an empty one.”

As much as Sora didn’t want to say it, he couldn’t deny that this claim was absolutely correct. Ienzo had said that Roxas’ data was likely contained within the digital Twilight Town, which meant that it would have very well been possible to find a way to set Roxas himself up within that world. And yet, as stable of an idea as it was, it was far from satisfying. Sora didn’t want to see Roxas stuck in a disconnected version of the world that was only barely real to begin with; he wanted to see Roxas brought back into the real world, to reunite with the real people who likewise wanted to see him return. He wanted to truly meet his Nobody, not just in dreams or data or distant memories, but face-to-face for the first time. And, simply put, just throwing Roxas into the alternate version of Twilight Town would accomplish anything but that.

“Hm… Ansem and Xemnas used to be part of the same person, right?” Goofy spoke up, seemingly going off on an entirely different tangent altogether. “But look, now they exist separately just fine. If they can do it, then I don’t see any reason why you and Roxas can’t find a way.”

“Oh, yeah!” Sora exclaimed, instantly allayed by this vote of confidence. Sure enough, it had to be true; if their foes could accomplish such a seemingly impossible feat, then certainly him and Roxas could too, right?

“Yeah! You tell ‘em Captain Goofy!” Donald chimed in his support as well. Ansem and Xemnas, however, were unphased by the trio’s newfound excitement.

“In that case, by all means,” Ansem nodded, surprisingly calm.

“Nothing would please us more than Roxas’ return,” Xemnas said, keeping his sights trained on Sora in particular. “After all, freeing him from the depths of your heart would at last allow us to fully lay claim to our thirteenth member.”

“You wish,” Sora scoffed harshly, still trying his best to ignore the persistent sting ringing through his heart. “Roxas will never answer to you again!”

“Still so blind,” Xemnas shook his head with almost something of a knowing smile. “We are no longer interested in having Roxas as a member. In fact, he is one of the only obstacles standing between and our true final vessel: you, Sora.”

The ripple of shock that struck the trio upon hearing this was sharp and swift. In fact, it might as well have pierced Sora clean through the heart for the amount of intense anguish that rushed through it, so immense and powerful that he could hardly bear it. And yet, instead of crumbling under the crippling strain, he remained standing, as if frozen in place by all of the frightening thoughts and feelings running through his heart and mind all at once. However, he wasn’t really pressed to provide much of a reaction to this disturbing claim, as Donald and Goofy did more than a suitable job doing so in his stead.

“No way!” Donald shouted fiercely as both him and Goofy stepped in front of Sora protectively. “Sora would never be a part of the Organization!”

“That’s right!” the captain admantly agreed. “And we would know! We were there to help save Sora from becomin’ one of Xehanort’s vessels!”

“A valiant effort, that was ultimately for nothing,” Ansem countered before addressing Sora directly. “You can feel it, can’t you? Already the darkness is starting to take a hold upon your heart. And through that darkness, soon you find yourself helpless to resist the master’s call to join our ranks as the vessel you are destined to be.”

“Call…” Sora repeated softly, his eyes widening with the dawning, horrific realization. “That voice… I-it was…”

“It very well could have been,” Xemnas interjected knowingly. “Or… perhaps it was the shadows of your own heart, urging you towards the proper path. Either way, you would do well to heed it; resisting its command will only delay the inevitable.”

At that very moment, the pain coursing through Sora’s heart spiked yet again, and this time, it was fully enough to send him collapsing to his knees, even despite Donald and Goofy rushing to fret over him worriedly. “N-no…” he began weakly, glaring up at Xemnas and Ansem with as much defiance as he could muster. “I don’t care what you try to do to me, I’m not about to lose myself to the darkness!” At this, the Keybearer began to stand, struggling somewhat, until Donald and Goofy helped him rise to boldly, brazenly face their foes once again. “So you can just go and tell Xehanort to find himself another vessel because it’s never going to be me!”

The captain and the magician smiled proudly to their young companion upon hearing his resilient proclamation, both of them glad to know that he hadn’t lost his verve against enemies as dangerous as these. And yet, even despite Sora’s courageous show of determination, Ansem and Xemnas hardly seemed to care.

“If that is what you believe, then you are free to struggle and suffer until your heart can no longer bear the weight of the freedom you’re so desperately trying to cling onto,” Ansem concluded, his tone disapproving and icy.

“But keep in mind that if you truly do want to bring Roxas back, the only way is for you to give your heart up for his,” Xemnas added, presenting a disparaging truth that Sora knew all too well. “Which means that try as you might to resist the darkness, calling upon its power is your only hope for releasing his heart from your own.”

By this point, Sora’s hands were clenched so tightly into fists that they were practically shaking, his anger towards this pair and their callous claims, especially when they came to Roxas, rising by the second. “You really think I buy any of that?” he asked challengingly. “I don’t need the darkness to help Roxas or anyone else. I’ll find another way instead, you’ll see.”

“Go on then,” Ansem remarked with the slightest of mocking grins. “But remember: the shadows are never out of reach if you need them.” At this, the seeker of darkness nodded to the space behind the trio, where, as if on cue, a sizable group of Heartless was arising from the grass, ready to attack. Xemnas swiftly added onto the monstrous horde, calling upon a swath of Nobodies and creating an aptly dangerous force that was already deadest on besetting the trio before them.

Sora stole a brief glance away from the creatures to the duo that had summoned them, noticing that they were getting ready to take their leave instead of confronting the trio in battle themselves. “Enjoy whatever fleeting time you have left to bask in the warmth of the light,” Xemnas began, already calling upon a dark corridor for their retreat.

“For soon enough, you will stand in the depths of darkness alongside the rest of us,” Ansem finished with a dark, goading grin.

“Now… set your heart free,” both of them proclaimed just as they disappeared into the darkness from whence they came.

“Wait!” Sora shouted after them, summoning his Keyblade in the hopes of catching them before they could get away. They still managed to, however, as the Keybearer’s attention was quickly diverted back to the horde of Heartless and Nobodies his companions had already started to engage in combat.

“Sora!” Donald called warningly, narrowly dodging a wide swing from one of the several rampaging Dusks.

Seeing that his companions could clearly use the help, Sora hurried over to join them, though even as the battle properly began, he couldn’t really shake his own immense desire to prove the malicious duo wrong. “It’s not darkness,” he muttered to himself as he entered the fray, feeling the pain in his heart finally, thankfully dissipate altogether. “Not if it helps him!”

And with that, the Keybearer threw himself into the fight alongside his companions, taking the force of Heartless and Nobodies head on. Despite their numbers, the creatures were a small obstacle at best, and hardly any of their main focus with their thoughts still unanimously on their alarming encounter with Xemnas and Ansem mere moments ago. The implications of their cryptic statements were discouraging, downright frightening in some instances, but of course, the trio only found time to properly discuss them once the monsters they had left behind were fully cleared out. And, once they did manage to successfully oust the Nobodies and the Heartless alike, that’s exactly what they did.

Donald and Goofy were the first to reconvene after the fight was through, though they were quick to turn their already fretful attention over to Sora instead. He stood apace away from them, his back turned and his expression unknown as he stared off into the twilit forest ahead, lost in thought over everything they’d just heard. As worrying as what Ansem and Xemnas had said concerning him had been, the Keybearer was far more focused on what they had said about Roxas. He refused to believe that the only way to help his Nobody would be to play right into the Organization’s hands. There had to be some other way, and even if he had no idea what that way might be, he was willing to do whatever he could to find it.

“Herc said… ‘with all our hearts’…” the Keybearer muttered to himself, finding more meaning in the hero’s inspiring words now than ever before. “Okay. Then all my heart it is. I’m getting Roxas out.”

“B-but aren’t ya worried about what they said?” Goofy asked, aptly apprehensive. “About… y-ya know?”

“A-about you being a-a… a vessel?” Donald finished, just as worried.

Sora paused at this, glancing back at his companions to find their expressions awash in dread and concern solely for him. Concern that he couldn’t help but appreciate, especially given the circumstances. “N-no,” he shook his head, his hand lightly skimming over his now-calm heart. “No, I’m not. They probably only said all that stuff to try to psych me out or scare me, but its not gonna work. And besides, its like you guys said; you and Axel and Riku and the king all saved me, so there’s no way that whole ‘vessel’ thing could be true, right?”

Donald and Goofy exchanged an initially uncertain glance at this, neither of them entirely sure when they considered all of the odd happenings that had been going on since this new journey began, to Sora in particular. And yet, when they met their young companion’s bright, reassuring smile, their worries were quickly put to rest. After all, if Sora had begun to fall victim to the sway of darkness as Ansem and Xemnas had claimed, certainly he wouldn’t be able to maintain his usual upbeat resolve. His confident, carefree smile was proof enough for them that he was still himself, and that was something that both the captain and the magician hoped would never change.

“Well… ok…” Donald relented somewhat halfheartedly. “But still, you need to be careful, Sora. Especially if the Organization really does wanna force you onto their side.”

“Which is why, if ya start noticing that anything’s wrong or off, ya gotta promise to tell us about it,” Goofy asserted with a rare stern sincerity in his tone. “That way, we can help keep ya safe from anything the Organization might try to do to ya!”

“Oh, come on, you guys, nothing’s gonna happen,” Sora assured lightly, though he was quick to recant his casual manner upon seeing the gravely serious expressions his companions shared. “B-but… ok. I… I promise.” The Keybearer looked away as he said this, knowing that he had already largely broken this promise by not telling either of them about the voice or the pain that had both pressed so viciously upon his heart.

If their brief encounter with Xemnas and Ansem had confirmed anything for Sora, it was that the voice somehow taking complete control over him had been no random happenstance. The pair had hinted that it could have very well been Xehanort himself, but even then, the Keybearer wasn’t entirely convinced that was the case. As for what the voice had truly been, he still wasn’t sure, but he was resolved against the idea that the dark duo’s claims of him being the supposed thirteenth vessel were anywhere close to correct. True, he had nearly fallen victim to such an alarming fate during his and Riku’s exam, but in the end, Xehanort’s plans for him had ended in failure, or at least that’s what he’d heard since he had been largely lost to relentless slumber at the time. Still, Sora firmly believed that his friends’ courageous, selfless efforts to save him had been successful in the end. Any evidence or claims to the contrary were likely nothing worth worrying about whatsoever.

Or at least, he hoped they were nothing, because the alternative was absolutely unthinkable.


 

With Heartless and Nobodies and the like still out and about as they were, Sora, Donald, and Goofy had decided the best course of action would be to return to town to warn Hayner and Olette of the lurking danger. They did so, meeting up with the pair amidst their job of hanging posters up around town and urging them to stay on their toes against any lingering threats that may lie in wait around the area. And with that message relayed, the trio realized that their time in Twilight Town had just about come to an end. After all, they still had yet to begin their search for the Keys in earnest, and as far as any of them could tell, they weren’t going to find any of them here. Still, they all made sure to solidify their shared resolve one more time to continue working towards helping Roxas, even if all they could really do for now was wish and hope for his eventual return. And while it perhaps wasn’t the quickest or most direct way of bringing that return about, at the very least, it was something.

Still, as the group began exchanging their fond farewells and parting words, they were completely unaware of the fact that they were being closely watched from above. Ansem and Xemnas stood atop a nearby building, more or less unseen by any of the oblivious townsfolk below as they observed the Keybearer in particular with careful, confident scrutiny.

“He still believes that his heart is safe from the influence of darkness,” Ansem sneered, crossing his arms as he looked down at Sora condescendingly. “Pathetic.”

“His heart is strong, to be sure,” Xemnas mused more evenly. “But in the end, his naiveté is bound to be his downfall, if not his obvious weakness for those he cares for most.”

“Well, that should be an easy weakness to exploit, huh? Especially when you think about just how many ‘friends’ that kid seems to have.”

The pair turned at this, unsurprised to see a dark corridor open up on the same rooftop they were are as Xigbar stepped through it to join them. Neither Xemnas nor Ansem offered him much of a greeting as they instead turned their focus back to Sora, not noticing the freeshooter’s almost cocky smirk as he did the same. “Still, aren’t you making it a little too obvious?” he asked the pair, having witnessed their earlier encounter with the trio from afar.

“We were instructed to guide him,” Xemnas said simply. “To point him towards his proper place among our ranks, no matter how long his… ‘recruitment’ might take.”

“Oh, so it really is him, huh?” Xigbar asked, still smirking. “And I thought Xehanort was just pulling everyone’s leg by dropping all those hints. But I gotta say…” The freeshooter took on a faux thoughtful look as he kept his sights trained on the unwitting Keybearer. “He doesn’t really look the part…”

“He will,” Ansem assured. “In time.”

“Hmph, well, you two seem confident that he’ll just fall perfectly into place,” Xigbar mused dryly. “But let’s not forget how many times Sora still managed to rain on our parade. So what’s the plan for when he ends up slipping through the cracks and figures out some way to keep his heart out of Xehanort’s reach?”

“He won’t,” the seeker of darkness concluded. “And if he does find a way to waver from the path we lay, we destroy him.”

“But in that case… we’ll have to find ourselves another vessel,” Xigbar pointed out. “Oof, the old man would not like that. He seems pretty deadest on Sora in particular for some reason. Wonder why that is…?”

“The reason is not important,” Xemnas rebuffed succinctly. “What is important is that the process has begun. Try as he might to refuse or resist, there is nothing Sora can do to protect his heart from the tide of darkness already overtaking him.”

“And once that tide inevitably tears his heart apart,” Ansem added, as they all looked back down to Sora once more, their dark intentions for him clear. “Then we’ll be there, to pick up what’s left of the broken pieces…”

At this, the rooftop trio finally took their leave, allowing the still unaware group below to continue on their journey, wherever it might take them next. However, there was still yet another pair of eyes focused on them, this time from an even higher vantage point: the clock tower itself.

From this lofty height, one of the telltale black cloaks of Organization XIII had just been thrown, discarded by its most recent ex-member who was more than ready to cast off any sort of association to the group and to its leader in particular. Still, his newfound independence didn’t mean he didn’t have his own agenda in mind. For as he caught sight caught sight of the Keybearer leaving town far below him, he felt a spark of all too familiar warmth burn in his heart, a warmth that he hated and craved all at once. A warmth that would help him claim what was rightfully his, once and for all. “There you are…” he said darkly, not even having to question if he had picked out the right face in the crowd. After all, his was nearly exactly the same. “Looks like I’ve finally found you… Ventus…”